Published February 1, 2001
Down to Earth, Chris Rock’s remake (directed by Chris and Paul Weitz) of Heaven Can Wait (1978)—itself a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)—is a disappointment. Though there are some very funny things in it, its glib message about being oneself turns out to be a cover for being self-indulgent, in the style (I’m afraid) of so many younger artists these days. As you might expect, the film has a number of brilliant jokes, but no discipline, no narrative continuity, no attempt at creating and sustaining a plausible situation on screen that would make us care very much about the characters involved in the story of a love that reaches beyond death, which is the film’s ostensible subject. In fact, the all-importance of striking the “cool” attitude that seems to be necessary for the appeal to a mainly black and hip young white audience makes the love story, such as it is, seem a mere sideline. Our hero just picks up the same chick in two different lives.
There is also something that doesn’t quite work right in the transformation of this person, one Lance Barton (Mr. Rock), from a boxer (in the 1941 film) or a football quarterback (in the 1978 version) to a comedian. Part of the point of putting the hero in that all-male context in the earlier films was to point the contrast between his masculine striving, and failure, in a public and competitive arena and the love, associated with the private and the feminine, that sustains him through it—and, ultimately, through death itself. It’s very un-politically correct of course, but the story has the power of archetype—a power which does not survive the translation of the arena of the hero’s strivings to a comedy competition. Of course we wish him well in his efforts to ingratiate himself with the audience, but they somehow don’t have that mythic overtone that sporting combat has.
Nor is there any attempt to exploit the mythic potentiality of the heavenly setting. An oily Chazz Palminteri in a blue satin dinner jacket is the maître d’ of the heavenly night club (where “the fun never stops” ) and the nearest we get to mystery is the mystery of why such a self-consciously cool guy would employ a nerdy screw-up like Keyes (Eugene Levy) to do his body-snatching for him. You would think that some sense of awe and grandeur would be a minimum requirement for any representation of the afterlife, but there is about this film something of the same failure of the imagination that made such a mess of Dogma, in which Mr Rock played an angel. In neither picture is there so much as a glimmer of an understanding on the part of the filmmakers that either the saints, the angels or God himself are any different than they are, or the world over which the heavenly hosts preside any different from their own.
Of course if you think it’s funny to think of heaven as a night club and its gatekeeper as a not particularly tough maître d$rsquo;, then you won’t mind about this.