Heaven can’t wait for a brotha. Lance Barton (Chris Rock, Nurse Betty), a bike messenger who would be king of comedy, usually can’t even flag down a cab in New York City. But when he’s run down by a semi and taken (before his time) by a squeamish celestial civil servant, Mr. Keyes (Eugene Levy, Best in Show), Lance wakes up in the pearly white rooms of the exclusive, Manhattan-style night club that is heaven.
But Lance isn’t ready for a hereafter party with the likes of Tupac and Biggie. Heaven can wait. Lance has a gig to do and a woman to woo. Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater is throwing a final amateur-night contest and even though boos have literally blown him off its stage, he’s keeping hope alive that he’ll be one of the chosen. He’s just met the love of his life, Santee Jenkins (Regina King, Mighty Joe Young), making his dear departure by only having eyes for her — and by not keeping them on the road.
Heaven proves to be as well-run as a Florida election. Keyes has collected Lance 50 years too early. And Lance Barton has been eulogized, his body buried, so Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri, Analyze This), heaven’s capo, makes him an offer he can’t refuse: Lance will be provided with a loaner body until a permanent one comes available. The loaner belongs to one Charles Wellington, the 15th richest man in the world — white, 50ish and very unfunny-looking. As Wellington, can Lance land his sucker-punch lines and knock a young sista off her feet? Only if he gets down to earth.
Down to Earth is at its laugh-out-loud best when Chris Rock does his own material and at its worst when it gets bogged down in mediocre dialogue. Rock uses the plot of Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait (1978) as a Trojan Rolls-Royce, filled with a satire of American race relations, but underpowered by a weak love story. Laughs and an incompetent angel may get Down to Earth off the ground, but it never flies high.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].