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ROCK OF AGES

DOWN TO EARTH **

STARRING: Chris Rock, Regina King and Chazz Palminteri

DIRECTORS: Chris and Paul Weitz

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for adult humor and language

THE LOWDOWN: A black bike courier comes back down to earth as a rich white guy

In Chris Rock's new comedy, a recently deceased bike courier comes back to earth to inhabit the body of a wealthy financier.

Think that's unbelievable?

Get this: Rock has gone PG-13.

That's right. The excitable and wiry stand-up known for biting social commentary laced with expletives has passed well under the R-bar for his leading man debut. In "Down to Earth" we're introduced to a kinder, gentler Rock. Problem is, when he tones down his act, the laugh-meter drops, too.

At times, Rock looks so out of place that he appears to be moving through another man's movie. That's ironic not only because of the out-of-body character he portrays. This is the role Rock, with help from two other writers, crafted for himself. In interviews the Brooklyn-born comedian said he was tired of being offered the scripts that Mike Myers and Adam Sandler had rejected. The result, as the opening credits indicate, is not an original idea but an adaptation of "Heaven Can Wait," the 1978 blockbuster that borrowed generously from 1941's "Here Comes Mr. Jordan."

In this version, Beatty's jock is replaced by Rock's aspiring comedian, a bike courier who dies a little bit whenever he takes the microphone at the Apollo Theatre's amateur night. After a collision with a semi insures that audiences will be spared Lance's bad jokes for good, two guardian angels (Chazz Palminteri and Eugene Levy) take pity, giving Lance a second chance at life and the Apollo.

Lance's new body takes some getting used to. After all, this Wellington is everything Lance isn't: wealthy, wrinkly and white.

It's the third "W" that Rock should have mined for its rich comedic potential. To his credit, he produces a handful of side-splitting bits centered around race distinctions - there's just not enough of them. When Lance/Wellington cruises down the street in his Rolls Royce, he's greeted by looks of shock and disgust from a pair of black motorists. Though the audience usually sees Wellington as Rock, in this scene we catch a glimpse of what the black men are reacting to: a flabby 53-year-old getting down to DMX. In his attempt to appeal to a broad audience, Rock won't push the envelope any further than that. For a comedian who has built a career around provocative humor, that trade-off isn't worth it.

To prove that he's a new man, Lance goes off on a rant in front of his board of directors and the media. "Shot in the head? You got a bed," Lance assures the demonstrators gathered outside the hospital, promising to treat every ailment from dandruff to cancer. "Your head is bloody? We're your buddy."

For a shining moment, the old Rock is back. Sadly, he only makes a cameo

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