Chris Rock is a pretty funny comedian, but his newest vehicle, Down to Earth, is a dull, barely amusing movie, and more's the pity, for while it has some comical scenes, it is accidentally instructive in the ways that standup comedy and film comedy are not one and the same.
The movie is a remake of a remake of a play, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It takes its screen inspiration from the 1978 Elaine May/Warren Beatty film Heaven Can Wait, which in turn took its inspiration from the 1941 Harry Segall Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and that was based on a play by the same title. Whew! Quite a legacy to live up to.
In this version, Chris Rock plays Lance, a bike messenger cum amateur comedian who is always so poorly received at amateur night at the Apollo theater that his nickname is "Booey" for all the boos he gets. On his way home from a gig one night, he gets distracted by a beautiful woman and rides his bike directly into the path of an oncoming truck. Whisked out of his body by the angel Keyes (the perpetually hapless Eugene Levy), he discovers that heaven is really a giant nightclub filled with beautiful women and good music.
This matters not at all to Lance, who insists that he shouldn't be dead and demands to see the boss. He is directed to Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri), who indeed agrees that they took him too soon. But, since his body has disappeared, the only remedy is to put him in a loaner body until a more suitable one shows up, which is how he ends up as Charles Wellington III, a wealthy and sleazy scion of New York society whose wife has just killed him.
Lance sees and hears himself in this body -- everyone else sees Mr. Wellington. Fundamentally, this is a good comedic structure, and by rights Down to Earth should be an amusing send up of black, white, rich and poor. But Chris Rock, who co-wrote the screenplay, doesn't seem to have a good grasp of the setups and payoffs in a movie as opposed to those in a standup routine. While several of the individual scenes are very funny and pointed -- such as when Lance attempts to use his old routine in front of a black audience while all they see is an old white guy, proving that some jokes can only be made by black people to black people -- the larger comedic payoffs are missing. Down to Earth relies too heavily on stereotypes rather than characters, and the romantic story arc ends up trumping the comedic one.
Good film comedy relies on many of the same elements as standup, including timing, story line and character. The question for the multitude of Saturday Night Live comics like Rock who have ventured off the sketch stage and onto the silver screen is how to translate the quick setup/payoff into something sustained and interesting. It definitely can be done (think The Blues Brothers, for example), and Rock probably has the chops to do it. We'll probably just have to sit through a few more unfunny movies until he gets it right.