In Down to Earth, bike messenger Lance Burton, played by Chris Rock, wants to be a successful stand-up comedian, like, say, Chris Rock. Unfortunately, he is so unfunny that at the Apollo’s regular amateur nights, two women in the balcony attend—like The Muppet Show‘s Statler and Waldorf—just for the pleasure of booing him.
It is hard to imagine anyone booing Chris Rock, which may be his flaw as a comedian: He is always the zinger, never the zinged. He zings in a likable enough way. He smiles, and if he raises his voice, the loudness is evenly pitched. But there is never any doubt that Rock is in control, which limits his emotional repertory. Fear and shame are not feelings he works with, though there may be some rage crystallized behind his constant smile.
If only Lance were more comfortable with himself, the movie suggests, he would be as funny onstage as he is off. However, his self-discovery is complicated by his sudden reincarnation as a 53-year-old rich white man, thanks to a snafu by angels Chazz Palminteri and Eugene Levy. Down to Earth is itself, it turns out, a reincarnation of Heaven Can Wait. (Rock says he came up with the idea after lunch with Warren Beatty.)
The cross-race spin allows the audience two tabooed sights: wealth enjoyed without sociopolitical guilt, and more riskily, a white man (albeit with Chris Rock’s soul) openly mocking black urban poverty. There is a lot of electricity running in these cables, and directors Chris and Paul Weitz, responsible for American Pie, know how to tap enough of it that almost every minute of Down to Earth is entertaining. But not quite surprising. When Lance-as-millionaire gets carried away by a DMX song and sings along to the lyrics “Niggaz wanna die,” an offended black tough punches him out cold—quickly dispatching a scene whose awkwardness a bolder movie might have explored. The Warren Beatty film to beat, after all, if you want to venture through the political fallout of a black soul inhabiting a rich old white man’s body, is Bulworth. Down to Earth is not as messy, as embarrassing, or as rewarding.
The press notes for Haunted Castle reproduce the IMAX Corporation’s warning to its theaters that the computer-animated 3-D horror movie has scenes of torture that could be “degrading to our brand.” Don’t get too excited. Most of Haunted Castle is no scarier than the sullen, epicene Belgian rock musician who stars in it. The devil, a sort of roasting tarantula, offers his usual bargain—a soul in exchange for going platinum—and then, in a lapse of salesmanship, gives a tour of his dungeon. A few of the damned do look human, and you briefly see one chained beneath a swinging knife, à la The Pit and the Pendulum. Gruesome death is more unnerving in three dimensions than two, and the scene may well be too frightening for a young child. That’s too bad, because the rest of the movie is probably too benign for anyone else.