Down To Earth

Down to Earth. Village Roadshow Pictures 2001.

Before watching the movie:

I don’t know what I would’ve been there to see, but I’m pretty sure I saw a trailer for this movie in the theater. I don’t think I got from the trailer that he was a comic, but they might as well make it thoroughly a Chris Rock vehicle by giving him a stand up career.

I’m interested to find out what reason the movie comes up with for why Lance can come back but not as himself.

After watching the movie:

Lance Barton is hungry for success in standup at the Apollo, but he can never be himself on stage and is always telling stale jokes and getting booed off. When he learns that the Apollo is going to be closed permanently, he begs his agent to get him into one of the five amateur spots for the farewell show, then gets hit by a truck on his way home. Arriving in heaven, it becomes clear that there’s been a mixup and he shouldn’t have been taken for another 40 years, but it’s too late to put him back in his mangled body that has already been pronounced dead on Earth. Management agrees to give Lance a freshly deceased loaner body while they find a good fit for him, and Lance chooses the body of heartless millionaire Charles Wellington III because it seems like a good opportunity to meet Sontee, a girl he’s interested in, because she’s opposing Wellington’s plans to buy a hospital and refuse service to people without the best insurance. Lance immediately begins stirring things up by mingling with the house staff, and starts to learn how to make a difference with Wellington’s money. And also that middle-aged white men can’t tell “Black people be like” jokes.

The plot seems a little confused about what lesson Lance needs to learn. It’s pretty explicit about how Lance needs to open up and share himself on stage and with Sontee, but more attention is given to him learning how to do good with his fortune. A fortune he got control of by changing places with a stingy and cruel man that seems to have come with the lesson Wellington needed to learn. True, the people he bonds with, he bonds with by letting them see who he really is, but in the obvious “actually a hungry Black man” sense more than any real indication he learned to let down his guard and be intimate and vulnerable with people.

I can’t tell if the uncomfortable comedy is entirely on purpose. There are scenes that get mileage out of Lance acting Black but everyone seeing a white man and it’s Not Cool, and it doesn’t feel like that’s coming from the best place. Lance does a standup bit about how white people don’t want Black people at The White Mall and the implication is that it could’ve been a great bit if he looked like the man he feels like, and I’m not sure if I’m just uncomfortable with the jokes because I’m supposed to be uncomfortable with Wellington telling them. There’s commenting on racial inequality, and then there’s reinforcing it, and this sometimes feels like it’s getting into the latter.

I hadn’t realized this was an adaptation of a book that had been made before. While I had been aware of Heaven Can Wait, I didn’t know this was a direct remake of it, not just the same premise but with a twist. Retelling stories with new angles for social commentary is something I’m in favor of, and it feels better when it’s legitimately the same story and not a heavily inspired but unofficial telling.

This is kind of funny but it ends up being very sweet. It’s too bad it wasn’t well-received in its time. There are plenty of other movies made in the early 2000s that don’t stand up as well as this one.

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