By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:46 AM EDT
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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 ”Boo-ey,” 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 boo-less 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 the 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 forebears. 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. B-

Lisa Schwarzbaum

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Down to Earth STARRING Chris Rock Regina King PARAMOUNT RATED PG-13 88 MINUTES

Down to Earth

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