What's in a name? We might also ask what's in a plot, or what's in a number -- as in, how many times is it safe to remake a successful feature film? Only once, given the evidence provided by "Down to Earth," a mediocre Chris Rock vehicle directed by Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz, the siblings who brought us the sophomoric 1999 sex comedy "American Pie." "Earth's" original text, one might suggest, wasn't quite Shakespeare. But the Weitz brothers and the writing team (including Rock) credited with penning this disappointment aren't noted for their talents at adaptation.
"Down to Earth" (the fourth movie by that name since 1917) is practically a blow-by-blow remake of 1978's superb "Heaven Can Wait," a funny charmer starring Warren Beatty as a football player who dies before his time, only to return to terra firma in the body of a corrupt millionaire and seek a relationship with a befuddled Julie Christie. That film, directed by Buck Henry and written by Beatty and Elaine May, was a remake of 1941's "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," which starred Robert Montgomery as a prizefighter. The 1947 "Down to Earth" was a parody of "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," and that one was reborn in 1980 as "Xanadu." (Got all that?)
Nearly all of those movies are likelier sources of entertainment than the Weitzes' lackluster effort, a mildly diverting romantic comedy that makes very little of what might have been a significant kink in the old story line. Lance Barton (Rock), an aspiring stand-up comic and bicycle messenger, dies due to a divine mix-up and returns to Earth to borrow the body of -- here's the twist -- a corrupt white millionaire.
Thus, the bulk of the humor rests in watching the movie's supporting characters observe this balding, heavyset, older, patently unhip Caucasian man groove to the beat of Barton's drum -- i.e., adapting his slang, dancing to hip-hop rhythms, telling self-deprecating jokes about black culture and seeking out a place to watch the BET channel. We, on the other hand, see Barton's image most of the time: We're afforded only occasional glimpses of the man whose body he inhabits. All of the forced routines and filler shtick merely lead us to wonder what Spike Lee might have done with the same material. (Hopefully, he would have come up with something better than his heavy-handed, ferociously messy "Bamboozled," which didn't even make it to Orlando.)
An interesting set piece near the beginning of the film is built upon the concept of Heaven as a very popular, 20s-style nightclub, allowing the Weitzes to offer a bit of screen time to angels played by a typically nerdy Eugene Levy (the "SCTV" veteran who played Jason Biggs' dad in "American Pie") and a very suave Chazz Palminteri. "The food is great, the women are beautiful and the music is hot," Palminteri's character, Mr. King, tells Barton about his post-death destination.
The remaining members of the cast, unfortunately, suffer in comparison with their counterparts in the 1974 film. Regina King ("Jerry Maguire") is sweet but not very believable as the object of Barton's affection, a part previously handled by Christie. And neither Greg Germann (of TV's "Ally McBeal") nor Jennifer Coolidge ("American Pie") come anywhere close to the ribald hijinks of "Heaven Can Wait's" Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon, respectively. Rock, who was such a gem in last year's "Nurse Betty" and 1999's "Dogma," as well as on "Saturday Night Live," nevertheless doesn't quite have what it takes to compensate for the obvious flaws of "Down to Earth." But who would?