Why is it that when brash comics decide they want to be movie stars, they turn themselves into saps? With the possible exception of Jim Carrey, I can’t think of one comic actor in recent times who has not chased mainstream success by turning into a vat of Jell-O. You can go back even further: Richard Pryor, to take the most wasteful example, rarely chose the kind of movie roles that captured his stand-up persona; he transformed himself into a family-entertainment huggy-bear. And Robin Williams long ago become a lachrymose joke.
Chris Rock is the latest casualty of this unfortunate tradition. In Down to Earth, he plays Lance Barton, an amateur comedian and bicycle messenger mistakenly whisked to Heaven by an angel (Eugene Levy) before his time. Returned by the head angel (Chazz Palminteri) to earth, Lance is given a new body to inhabit – the just-murdered corpse of Park Avenue billionaire Charles Wellington – until one more suitable can be found. (It’s a premise similar to those of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Heaven Can Wait.) The gimmick here is that although everyone in the movie sees Lance as a Caucasian geezer, we see him mostly as Chris Rock. This is a passable running joke, but it turns out that Rock is after something edifying. He wants Down to Earth to be about Lance’s inner self, about how it doesn’t matter what we look like on the outside.
A great racial comedy could be made with exactly the opposite premise. If Lance realized that he could act out his most larcenous fantasies by being white and rich, the film might have had an edge. Instead, the dismally maudlin point is that love conquers all. Lance is infatuated with Sontee (Regina King), a black community activist whose spirited opposition to Wellington’s fat-cat maneuverings reforms him. Then she becomes infatuated. This love interest is creepy: Although we in the audience see Wellington as Rock, Sontee sees him as an old, white, moneyed coot but warms to him anyway – not, of course, because he’s fabulously powerful and wealthy but because he has a good heart.
Directors Chris and Paul Weitz, who made American Pie, don’t do anything untoward with the baked goods this time around. Like Chris Rock, they want to be taken seriously as humanists. How much better Down to Earth would have been if everyone involved wanted simply to be taken seriously as a comedian. Chris Rock is so intent on sanctifying himself that he undercuts even his purely comic moments. With his blank, fixed stare and flat, impulsive line deliveries, he lacks an actor’s resources to pull him through the slop and the tears. He probably thinks that a good heart is all you need. If Rock ever comes to his senses, he can host Saturday Night Live and skewer this damp, gag-riddled civics lesson of a movie.
Last Resort is becomingly modest. it’s about a Russian woman, Tanya (Dina Korzun), and her 10-year-old son, Artiom (Artiom Strelnikov), and the difficulties they face as exiles in the British seaside community of Stonehaven. Tanya has come to England to marry her fiancé, but he rejects her and she ends up in a bleak holding area with a mass of other refugees. Her attempts to escape are blocked, and with her money running out, she auditions for an Internet-porn operation. The sequence in which she is asked to strip and writhe for the camera is painfully sad; she makes the attempt and then crumples in humiliation. Director Pawel Pawlikowski, a Pole working in England, understands the dissonance of a life lived at odds with one’s surroundings. His work here is reminiscent of Ken Loach’s, but unlike Loach he doesn’t hammer home the social-activist angle. Although Last Resort touches on the troubles of refugee camps, it’s no manifesto. Tanya is too individualistic to be a centerpiece for poster art. Her gumption for survival is matched by her romanticism; she says proudly that she always needs to be in love, and the sentiment is both her downfall and her salvation.
A celebrated actress in Russia, Dina Korzun can look simultaneously bewildered and resolute. When Tanya is wooed by Alfie (Paddy Considine), a local amusement-arcade manager, we can see how much she would like to be in love with this man, and also how far away she is from succumbing. Artiom doesn’t understand why his mother can’t just fall in love with Alfie, and his perplexity is something that a lot of divorced parents, and their children, will be able to recognize. Last Resort is one of the few films to get at the ways in which single mothers and their sons alternate being authority figures. Because Pawlikowski allows his actors much leeway in improvising their characters and dialogue, the relationships in this film have a tentativeness and a fluidity that seem natural without being overbearingly “real.”
Pawlikowski is a social realist almost as an afterthought. He films much of the action with a handheld jitteriness, but he’s trying to capture the wayward poetry of these people as they play out their fantasies of survival and redemption. Ultimately, what he gives us is so good that we want more: not just a resonant sketch but a filled-in canvas. The difficulty with the director’s improvisatory approach is that it can’t sustain the riches that arise from it. The last section, in which the three leads make a run for it, is tossed off. But at least Last Resort is unsatisfying at a very high level. It fritters away more than most movies ever offer up.
In brief: The Price of Milk, from New Zealand, gets points for oddness. Excellence is another matter. Danielle Cormack and Karl Urban play a loving couple living against a backdrop of verdant valleys that look like they might have been used for Xena: Warrior Princess or Hercules. Mysterious crones, Maori golfer gangs, sprawling quilts, dairy cows, and baby shoes figure heavily in the mix. It’s unmagical realism… . Rhythm ‘n’ Bayous, finishing out its run at the Screening Room, is the latest live-wire musical chronicle by the documentarian Robert Mugge, and it’s billed, quite literally, as a “road map to Louisiana music.” Practitioners of Cajun, Creole, and zydeco music strut their stuff. So do the players of a style new to me but instantly beloved: I’m speaking of swamp pop.
Down to Earth
Directed by Chris and Paul Weitz; starring Chris Rock, Eugene Levy, and Regina King.
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski; starring Dina Korzun.