Remakes Beg One Question - Why?: "Down to Earth," "Sweet November," and "Saving Silverman" Print
Movies - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 20 February 2001 18:00

Chris Rock in Down to EarthDOWN TO EARTH and SWEET NOVEMBER

Is it a coincidence, or a frightening sign of flicks to come, that the two most high-profile movie releases this past weekend were remakes of movies that no one could have reasonably wanted remakes of at all? Sure, it’s commonly accepted that Hollywood has all but run out of fresh ideas, but to be subjected to both Down to Earth and Sweet November in the same weekend seems a little harsh.

To be fair, Down to Earth is modestly amusing and has a jolt of energy in the presence of Chris Rock, and Sweet November has a pretty look and pretty stars. But the former is a remake of a 1978 Warren Beatty picture, Heaven Can Wait (itself a remake of 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan), which still holds up well, thank you very much. And the latter, based on a 1968 film of the same name ... well, good God, the original was heinous enough.

The lesser offender, Down to Earth, features Rock as a stand-up comic whose life is prematurely cut short, and who is allowed to return to Earth in another man’s body. The movie’s one joke is that this hip young African American lands in the body of an aged, chubby, ultra-rich white guy, and begins making this old dude cool, giving money to the disenfranchised and subtly wooing the woman who hates him (Regina King). I’d fill you in on the nuances of the subplots, but it’s far more fun to rent the original and catch them for yourselves.

I guess there’s nothing all that wrong about remaking a harmless piece of fluff for further profit, but once you get the gag, there’s nothing much right with it, either. Rock is quite entertaining in the first half of the film, having fun at the expense of the silly white folks surrounding him, and he certainly knows how to deliver a punch line and make it explode with crack timing. But with the exception of Eugene Levy as a beleaguered heavenly messenger, the supporting performances aren’t nearly as engaging as they should be (the characters played by Chazz Palminteri, Greg Germann, Jennifer Coolidge, and Frankie Faison were played in 1978 by James Mason, Charles Grodin, Dyan Cannon, and Jack Warden, and there’s no question about which ensemble is funnier), and the direction by Chris and Paul Weitz is as slack and visually dreary as it was in their American Pie. Down to Earth will no doubt play better to audiences completely unfamiliar with its cinematic predecessors – it could be a hit with teens – but to anyone with even a vague recollection of Heaven Can Wait or Here Comes Mr. Jordan, only one question will come to mind: Why did they bother?

Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron in Sweet NovemberYou could ask the same of Sweet November, but instead of wondering why so much time, money and energy was spent remaking a popular film, you’ll wonder why anyone would be drawn to a script this precious and sickly in the first place. Keanu Reeves stars as Nelson Moss, a soulless ad executive (is there any other kind in Hollywood?) who learns about life and love from the free-spirited Sara Deever (Charlize Theron). Sara becomes his unofficial therapist and official lover when she invites him to be her latest protégé: He’ll live with her for one month, become a better person, and then they’ll never see each other again. This material was hopelessly fake even in its original, late-’60s setting, when Free Love and Self-Awareness reigned, and shameless to boot, with Sara’s eventual revelation about her Fear of Commitment.

Set in the present, the new Sweet November appears to be taking place in some sort of bizarro world where no character does what a human being actually might; there are no real people on screen, just a series of types that react solely to the machinations of the plot.

As opposed to Down to Earth, the casting in the remake is an improvement, but that speaks less well of Reeves and Theron than it does badly of the original’s Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley. Both leads are attractive and sincere – God are they sincere – but they’re not interesting, and they’re put in a series of such forced tableaux that the movie begins to resemble the film version of an international-coffee commercial.

This new Sweet November is as earnest as can be, and it’s that earnestness that makes the movie rather laughable; no one, least of all director Pat O’Connor, seems to realize how wretched the material they’re working with is. Down to Earth may be pointless, but Sweet November is pointless again.

 

Amanda Peet, Jack Black, and Steve Zahn in Saving SilvermanSAVING SILVERMAN

Three of America’s most fearless comic performers – Steve Zahn, Jack Black, and Amanda Peet – all have substantial roles in Saving Silverman, and the movie still isn’t good. Zahn and Black play Wayne and J.D., the childhood friends of soon-to-be-married Darren Silverman (Jason Biggs) who find their opportunities to par-tay with him severely compromised by his new fiancée, Judith (Peet). They’re right to dislike her: Proudly calling herself the puppetmaster to Silverman’s puppet, she’s decided that the duo will never again have anything to do with her betrothed. In retaliation, Wayne and J.D. plan her kidnapping, hoping to get her out of the picture and Silverman’s old flame (Amanda Detmer) back in. Topnotch comedies have been created under far sillier circumstances than these, and with Zahn, Black, and Peet all looking ready to gobble the scenery, you’d expect hilarity to ensue.

It doesn’t. Part of the problem is that the film’s director, Dennis Dugan, has a sub-UPN style of TV pacing and staging (to call the film a slight improvement over his Adam Sandler vehicles Happy Gilmore and Big Daddy is not a compliment) and still doesn’t know how to shoot a physical gag; scenes of characters falling out of windows and receiving electroshock are total busts. Part of the problem is that Jason Biggs plays the lead, and this monotonous shnook becomes more mannered and phony with each new role. But the movie’s biggest failing is that it features the inspired comedic triumverate of Zahn, Black, and Peet and doesn’t know what the hell to do with them. Or rather, it allows them to do nothing but play variants of past performances – Zahn in subUrbia, Black in High Fidelity, Peet in The Whole Nine Yards and (regrettably) Whipped – and doesn’t give them the funny lines or situations to make their latest attempts entertaining. All three are working hard, but when they’ve been successful in the past it was because it appeared they weren’t working hard at all; their comic prowess looked effortless. Here, their antics look desperate, just like the rest of the unfunny, unoriginal Saving Silverman.


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