Based on Heaven Can Wait, the 1978 box office hit starring Warren Beatty, Down to Earth adapts the story so that a young black comedian is "prematurely reincarnated" as a rich white man. Lance Barton is a funny guy. The trouble is he’s only funny offstage. Under the spotlight at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, he freezes. Repeatedly. After yet another evening of being booed off the stage, Lance is pedaling to his favorite comic stand for new material when he’s distracted by an attractive woman (Sontee). His jaw drops and his bicycle careens into an oncoming truck. Keyes is the angel sent to escort Lance to heaven, and since he’s a compassionate supernatural being, he transports Lance out of his body a split second before the inevitable collision. Problem #1: As it turns out, the accident wouldn’t have killed Lance. So now he’s in heaven approximately 43 years before his time.
Problem #2: Lance’s body has already been discovered, so he can’t return to Earth as himself. But the angels are willing to send him back in someone else’s body, provided that person’s death hasn’t yet been discovered. Enter Charles Wellington, the 15th richest man in America, a heartless business tycoon whose cheating wife and personal assistant have plotted to kill him. A poisoned Wellington lies dead in his bathtub, making his body available for immediate occupancy. At first, Lance doesn’t want anything to do with Wellington’s corpse ("I can’t be funny in that body!"). Then he discovers that assuming Wellington’s identity will give him a shot at Sontee, so he strikes a deal with the angels to inhabit the body temporarily. But will his aged white body and youthful black humor be enough to win over the audience at the Apollo? And what about winning the heart of Sontee?
positive elements: Amidst the film’s dubious theology, the true message is repeated that everything is part of a grand plan. Also reinforced is the idea that a person’s soul—not his body—is what’s really important to his identity. Sontee tells Lance, "It’s not all about looks." In fact, this is the biggest lesson he learns: People too often judge others by their looks, but what really matters is what’s on the inside.
In Wellington’s body, Lance has a unique perspective on race and class inequality. In essence, he’s a privileged person who truly understands how the underprivileged live. As such, he gives his house staff the royal treatment, urging his accent-faking butler to be himself and turning everyone’s expectations upside-down by serving his servants. Sontee is a wise woman with genuine concern for the poor. Lance takes her advice to "do something positive with your money," giving cash to a bum on the street and making other unselfish gestures. And though his interest in Sontee begins as a purely physical attraction, Lance ends up genuinely wanting to help her cause—protecting the public status of the urban hospital Wellington had wanted to buy out and privatize.
Lance’s marriage proposal to Sontee reinforces the relevance and value of the institution, rather than making sex or cohabitation the end-all-be-all of relationships.
spiritual content: Down to Earth means well but takes huge theological liberties. On one hand, the film acknowledges that there is indeed life after death, that a physical heaven and hell exist and that "it is appointed for man once to die." But is it really possible for a man to end up in heaven before he’s actually dead? Down to Earth’s answer to spiritual questions seems to be that the supernatural world is not all that different from the natural one. Angels make mistakes. Big ones. And they feel obliged to "make it up to" the humans they’ve wronged. They can be carnal (A doorman ogles beautiful women), capricious (Keyes flippantly tells someone to "go to hell") and boastful (Mr. King says, "I’m a friggin’ angel, I can do whatever I want"). Heaven is not much more than the perfect dance club. ("The food is great, the women are beautiful, the music is hot and the fun never stops.") Also, reincarnation is central to the story line. And the fact that God is barely given a mention, even in heaven, is telling of the way the characters live on earth—they just don’t think He matters in everyday life.
sexual content: Sontee is a strong and uncompromising character—her determination to save the hospital keeps her from being quickly swayed by Lance/Wellington’s advances. Their relationship remains mostly respectful and innocent. Even more impressive is that Lance’s comedy routine is fairly clean, though a few mild sexual references do slip in here and there. (How few is amazing, considering actor Chris Rock’s real-life track record).
On the other hand, Mrs. Wellington’s adulterous relationship with Sklar (not to mention her immodest wardrobe) is disgusting. They’re hardly ashamed of being found in bed together. He’s often got his hand up her skirt, and their "sweet talk" to each other is almost always sadomasochistic. The writers and directors obviously mean for this to be viewed as a "dirty" relationship, but that doesn’t excuse the overt innuendo and onscreen foreplay. Then, to make matters worse, Lance gives Sklar permission to continue the illicit affair as he pursues other women. When Lance (as Wellington) admits that he loves Sontee and that he wants to divorce his wife, Mrs. Wellington tries to get him back by seducing him in numerous ways, including inviting him to join the ménage à trois he’s always fantasized about. Also, Lance briefly watches The Playboy Channel.
violent content: Lance hits Keyes when he finds out that the angel took his soul prematurely. When Mr. King takes Lance "body shopping," they visit several characters just before their deaths. Nothing is graphic, but, disturbingly, the situations are supposed to be humorous (a man leaps from a window, an old jogger has a heart attack and barbells fall on a weightlifter’s throat). Lance gets punched by a thug in a diner for using ethnic slang "reserved" for African-Americans, and he accidentally hits Sklar in the face with a golf club. Shots are fired at a rap concert and a resulting death is implied. A sniper is shown with his rifle just before a kill, but the actual murder is not shown.
crude or profane language: Almost too many to count. Constant use of a--. About a dozen s-words. Two bleeped or muffled f-words. Gangsta rap in the background also incorporates swearing. There are a few inappropriate uses of God’s name and one obscene gesture.
drug and alcohol content: Many characters are shown drinking alcohol, including people in heaven. Two smoke, including an angel. Mrs. Wellington is excessively fond of cocktails. Lance asks Sklar, "Was I takin’ Ecstasy that day?" The Snoop-Dogg assisted soundtrack includes repeated references to indo [marijuana] and gin ‘n juice. There’s a crack about the devil having "good weed."
other negative elements: Though it is clear to the audience that Lance never made a marriage commitment to Mrs. Wellington, he is living in the body of someone who did, so the fact that he takes divorce so lightly is disconcerting.
conclusion: Playing the true-to-life role of a stand-up comic, Rock is in his element. Through Lance’s struggle to be funny, he gets to explore the ins and outs of his "art"—taking real life situations and depicting them in a way that throws the audience off guard. With race and class differences as his subject, he’s very effective, not to mention truly funny. And Wellington’s body makes him even more so (an insightful look at the double-standard applied to some racial slurs and subject matter—the same words can be perceived very differently depending on the source).
It’s the comedy that arguably makes this film work better than its 1978 predecessor. Too bad the same can’t be said for the content. Rock recently told TV Guide that he had hoped for a PG rating for Down to Earth. "[Paramount] thought I was crazy," he says, "but it’s Heaven Can Wait. Why should it be an R? I don’t even know how it got to [be] PG-13. This is a real clean movie; I think parents are real happy when they can take their kids to see the ‘cursing guy.’" Kudos to Rock for wanting to keep Down to Earth as family-friendly as the original. Unfortunately, he failed. The addition of sexual humor, foul language and drug and alcohol references keep those hopes earthbound. Down to Earth may be a step in the right direction for Rock, but the "cursing guy" will have to keep trying if his goal is a true family film.