Down to Earth

Give Chris Rock credit for rising above his meager “Saturday Night Live” bit-player status, becoming a top-notch comedian and having a highly rated HBO series. We like him now, and we want to see him succeed.

“Down to Earth,” however, is not going to be his ride to the big-time. Based on the 1978 Warren Beatty film “Heaven Can Wait,” this good-natured hip-hop comedy is too uneven and too frequently unfunny. For all his skill as a stand-up, Chris Rock is most assuredly not an actor just yet, and certainly not a leading man in a romantic comedy.

Rock plays Lance Barton, a would-be stand-up comedian who gets booed off the stage by the notoriously brutal Apollo Theatre audiences. On his way home one night, he’s about to get hit by a truck when an overzealous angel (Eugene Levy), thinking Lance is as good as dead, plucks him one-tenth of a second before impact. Trouble is, Lance WASN’T going to die, and now he’s in heaven 40 years early.

To make up for the error, top angel Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri) agrees to put Lance back into a body, but it will have to be someone whose death hasn’t been noticed yet (they can’t have folks rising from the dead, after all). They settle on a millionaire whose trophy wife (Jennifer Coolidge) is trying to kill him so she can have his money and run off with his assistant (Greg Germann).

To everyone else, Lance in old Mr. Wellington’s body looks and sounds like Mr. Wellington. To him (and to us, most of the time), he looks and sounds like Chris Rock. Now he has to right the wrongs Wellington made — including saving a run-down hospital at the request of pretty nurse Sontee (Regina King), with whom he also wants to fall in love.

There are issues here, not the least of which is the improbability of Sontee falling for a middle-aged white man. If underscoring the beauty of color-blind love is one of the film’s purposes, it needs to have tried harder to make it believable.

The writing (by Rock, Lance Crouther, Ali Le Roi and Louis CK) is wildly uneven, too, as is the direction by Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz. After a very promising first five minutes, the film screeches to a halt and is only fitfully amusing after that. When it’s funny, it’s very funny, but it often forgets to try. (A sure sign of ineptitude: There are two, count ’em two, “go to hell” jokes in the heaven sequence. One was funny; two was embarrassing.)

A high point includes Lance’s first stand-up gig as old Mr. Wellington, when he realizes the jokes he usually tells about the differences between white folks and black folks sound astonishingly racist when coming from a white guy. His adjustment to his new persona — “Shut up before I crush you with my wallet,” he barks at a heckler — is clever, too.

When Lance finally gets his big break, the movie looks like a concert film — and a funny one, too. Chris Rock is funny, and “Down to Earth” is most entertaining when he’s mouthing off and being himself. Putting Chris Rock into a leading-man role is, at this point, as ill-advised as putting an edgy black comedian into the body of a white industrialist.

C (; PG-13, frequent profanity, some sexual dialogue.)