In Down to Earth, Chris Rock plays Lance Barton, an aspiring stand up comedian who doesn’t yet trust the cutting edge of his own talent, and it’s fun to see one of the sharpest, most fearless comics working today impersonate a flop. On an amateur night line up at Harlem’s illustrious Apollo Theatre, Lance, a New York City bike messenger by day, stares at the audience in terror, and blows his set. His well earned nickname, it turns out, is ”Booey,” and in demonstrating what failure looks like, in fiction, Rock, who can in fact nail a crowd – blam! – with his fearless observations about race and class, struts what makes him a star.
Lance’s willingness to pick himself up and come back for more demonstrates a commitment that endears him not only to his manager and mentor, Whitney (Frankie Faison), but also to Higher Authorities: When Lance, mowed down on his bike, is dispatched to heaven ahead of schedule by an unreliable angel (Eugene Levy), the sincerity of the young man’s plea for a reprieve long enough to get in one booless set back in Harlem impresses a celestial biggie, King (Chazz Palminteri). (That other celestial biggie, Bagger Vance, might have said the kid just needs to find his authentic swing.)
Thing is, Lance has got to return in a ”loaner” body, and the best chassis available at the moment belongs to an old white plutocrat. To us and to himself, Lance continues to look like slim, black Rock, who can say tough stuff about race; to the rest of world, he suddenly appears as a lardy white guy who suspiciously happens to know all the words to DMX’s ”Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.”
Directed by ”American Pie” brothers Chris and Paul Weitz and written by Rock and his trusted collaborators Lance Crouther, Ali LeRoi, and Louis C.K., this rejiggering of Warren Beatty’s signature 1978 comedy ”Heaven Can Wait” (which in turn was rejiggered from Alexander Hall’s great 1941 comedy ”Here Comes Mr. Jordan”) isn’t as divinely constructed a movie as its forbears. A color blind romance between Lance and an impassioned community activist (Regina King) is particularly awkward, the more so when we’re reminded that to those around him, Lance looks like Mr. Whipple the Charmin squeezer. But there’s something devilishly right about Rock pounding on Beatty, who fancied himself a black rapper in ”Bulworth. ” When Rock finds his authentic swing as an actor as well as a comedian, he’ll be, like, a movie god.