June 23, 2003 -- “Head of State” is another in a string of mediocre films starring stand up comic/actor Chris Rock. Others in the string include “Pootie Tang,” “Bad Company” and “Down to Earth.” Rock also wrote “Down to Earth” and produced three of those shows (the one he did not produce was “Bad Company”). Come to think of it, some of these films aren't even mediocre. Of course, Hollywood doesn't care what the critics think, as long as the films make money. That's another problem, “Head of State” cost about $62 million to produce and market. It made about $38 million at the box office, despite opening at number one. Ouch.
“Head of State,” written, directed, produced and starring Chris Rock, is a film with an interesting premise, but it goes for overly broad, slapstick comedy instead of smarter political satire. There are a number of funny gags in the film, but a lot of the jokes fall flat. Some of the better jokes are the campaign ads on television, which are not much of an exaggeration from the real thing. The Bush-like white stiff who is Rock's opponent in the campaign, Vice President Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy of “One Hour Photo”), is a funny character. His campaign motto, “God bless America and no place else,” pretty much sums up his view of the world.
The funniest guy in the film, however, is Bernie Mac (“Ocean's 11”) one of the original “Kings of Comedy.” He plays Rock's brother, Mitch Gilliam, and his vice presidential running mate (Rock plays Mays Gilliam). Mitch, a Chicago bail bondsman, is as tough as nails and doesn't suffer fools lightly. His interview sessions on television are very funny. His stern facial expression, which silences a reporter who has just asked a foolish question, is hilarious. Mac's comedy has such a sharp edge to it because there is rage just below the surface. He often seems to be close to violence. Echoes of Mac's stand-up comic routine can be heard throughout the film. One of the main problems with the film is that Mac does not become a player in the presidential campaign until the last quarter of the movie. He should have been in it from the start.
The plot has Washington D.C. alderman Mays Gilliam being selected as a presidential candidate by party boss Senator Bill Arnot (James Rebhorn of “Far From Heaven”) after the party's candidates are killed in a plane crash. Arnot picks Gilliam to please minority voters, figuring he will lose, paving the way for Arnot's own presidential bid four years later. When Gilliam starts gaining in the polls, Arnot tries to sabotage his campaign. Arnot's handpicked campaign managers, Debra Lassiter (Lynn Whitfield of “Stepmom”) and Martin Geller (Dylan Baker of “Road to Perdition”), develop a liking for Gilliam, setting up a conflict between them and Arnot. The political race between Gilliam and Lewis is pretty mild until Gilliam starts gaining in the polls. Lewis then wheels out some hilariously vicious negative campaign ads.
Some of the political satire works well, but there is also a lot of slapstick humor which doesn't work. There are several scenes in which the Gilliam brothers hit each other. One of these scenes turns into a fairly violent fist fight. The scenes are not funny and are painful to watch. In another scene Bernie Mac violently slaps reporters who are trying to get a comment from him. Another running gag has to do with Gilliam's ex-girlfriend, Kim (Robin Givens of “Blankman”) who dumps him just before he is nominated, then desperately tries to get him back. She is nabbed by security guards repeatedly and finally is seriously injured in an accident. Gilliam does not stop to help her. A couple of the early scenes with Givens are funny, but don't work as a running gag. She also overacts too much in her opening scene. The ex-girlfriend gag wears out very fast and becomes pathetic after a time as Kim becomes a ludicrous caricature. There is also a romance between Gilliam and Lisa (Tamala Jones of “The Ladies Man”), a convenience store clerk. It is not a convincing romance. It is more like brief romantic skit tacked onto the movie, almost as an afterthought. The running gag involving the official campaign “super whore” Nikki (Stephanie March) also misfires. It is a potentially funny idea that never develops into anything.
The story is a mixed bag. There are some good jokes, and a lot of bad ones, too. There are also some running gags that don't work. There are too many jokes that are either in bad taste, stupid, or both. Chris Rock and Bernie Mac are smart guys. They should be doing smart comedies. There have been some good political comedies in past years, smartly written ones, like “Wag the Dog,” “Primary Colors” “Dave” and “Bob Roberts.” They were all far better than “Head of State.” This film rates a C.
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