starring Chris Rock, Bernie Mac, Tamala Jones, Lynn Whitfield
screenplay by Chris Rock & Ali LeRoi
directed by Chris Rock
by Walter Chaw Chris Rock's directorial debut Head of State is a little like Weird Al Yankovic's UHF or Dana Carvey's Opportunity Knocks: a vehicle meant to showcase a sketch comedian's strengths but functioning more as an exposé on said comedian's weaknesses. It vacillates between a potentially interesting central plot and a couple of misogynistic and boring subplots, managing by the end to come off as shrill, cynical, and disjointed as well as overly cutesy and infatuated with its own cult of bling. Its one saving grace is that it seems to occasionally know what a satire is, conceiving of a "white folks can't dance" sequence that actually scores a couple of points in letting the poor Man dance well instead of mockingly (see Bringing Down the House), and in the identification of "God Bless America" as the hypocritical exclusionary bullshit that it is.
Mays Gilliam (Rock) is an alderman picked to run for president when the frontrunners in his party (we presume Democrat, we can't be sure) are killed in a plane crash. The right candidate at the right time (he can't win, he looks good for the party in trying), Gilliam bucks his spin doctors to be true to his own self and, in the process, wins the adoration of both sides of the aisle. Like another excrescent Carvey vehicle, Master of Disguise, Gilliam's running mate and big brother Mitch (Bernie Mac) ends most of his scenes by slapping someone in the face. As comic devices go, it falls somewhere between old white people speaking ghetto jargon and Robin Givens as a psychopathic ex-girlfriend who's constantly being tackled by security or running into parked cars.
Despite the whiff of entitlement inherent in any premise wherein outrage is the equal to competency (the old guard white media is made sport of for caring whether the vice presidential candidate knows anything about NATO), Head of State is less racist than puerile, repetitive, and tiresome. It falls in line with Rock's penchant for Prince and Pauper stories rewritten along race and class distinctions (Down to Earth, Bad Company)--urban fairy tales that aren't satirical jabs at white culture so much as slapstick fantasies with racial elements. Rock the director tends toward a sort of irreverent jumble that demonstrates too much faith in Rock the actor's ability to carry romantic scenes (the token love interest played by Tamala Jones) and too little faith in Rock the writer's gift for social commentary.
In toning it down for a PG-13 rating, Head of State attacks politicians, whites, and the media, leaving only lawyers off the list of easy targets that are beneath gifted comedians. Like Richard Pryor before him, Rock has proven himself a smart social observer as a stand-up comedian and, also like Pryor, Rock has demonstrated absolutely no potential for translating that acerbic genius for film. Blunted and neutered, Rock in Head of State is the very definition of nondescript: uncertain about what this film is about and unclear as to how to get to wherever it's going. It's not sure how to walk the line between insulting and moronic and settles for being a little of both--the big presidential debate (scored, like the rest of the film, in a schizophrenic slurry of hip-hop and Monday Night Football) highlights the confusion with its dense visual jokiness and rabble-rousing broadsides.
Urging parents to "knock your children out, it's good for them" is something that was funny when Pryor was saying it in the Seventies, less so when Murphy was repeating it in the Eighties, and less so again when Sinbad dredged it up in the Nineties. Head of State is at least the fourth generation of the same old shtick--its alleged shock has worn off with its relevancy (and why a bit about child-rearing in a political satire?). Rather than raising eyebrows, Head of State is just a sickly version of Bulworth (another film written/directed/produced by/and starring its lead), a movie that wasn't much in the final analysis but at least had the anger and edge to draw a little blood. Originally published: March 28, 2003.
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