Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:35 - Released 3/28/03

The premise of Head Of State, which serves as Saturday Night Live alum Chris Rock’s directorial debut, is very similar to that of Warren Beatty’s 1998 vehicle Bulworth, except that in this case it is an actual black man running for president instead of a white man pretending to be black. Unfortunately, this film also does not include the talents of writer/director Beatty, so it comes off not only as a second-rate rehash of Beatty’s idea, but also as a rather desperate attempt by Rock to break into mainstream cinema. Rock has distinguished himself as a stand-up comedian and social commentator, but this film attempts to appeal to such a wide audience, it fails on almost every front. While his screenplay (co-written with Ali LeRoy) has the occasional witty social barb and a few truly meaningful messages, it also attempts to exist as a slapstick farce, which undermines the message and all but drowns out the meaning.

Rock plays Mays Gilliam, the local alderman for one of the most violent neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. Although he has proven himself as a friend to his downtrodden people, he is about to be phased out because he refuses to play political ball. Then, when the Democratic presidential candidate for the upcoming 2004 election and his running-mate are both killed in a freak accident, the party higher-ups find themselves desperate for a candidate. Senator Bill Arnot (James Rebhorn), who intends to run in 2008, wants someone who will “make the party look good”—but not win. So his advisors, campaign manager Martin Geller (Dylan Baker) and speechwriter Debra Lassiter (Lynn Whitfield) find Mays and inform him he is to be the new candidate for president. After a short period of disbelief, he decides to hit the campaign trail, at first reading the “this great nation” rhetoric written for him by Debra, but finally deciding, after a moment of truth with his brother Mitch (fellow stand-up comedian Bernie Mac) that he needs to speak from his heart. Not surprisingly, his brutal honesty and occasional use of obscenities/Ebonics turns the crowd on, and it soon looks like he may actually have a chance against the stuffy and slimy incumbent vice president (Nick Searcy). Meanwhile, he falls for a pretty convenience store clerk (Tamala Jones) while being pursued by his gold-digging ex-girlfriend (Robin Givens) who wants to reconcile now that he’s become famous.

Chris Rock is obviously trying, however weakly, to say something important with this movie. The trouble is, he’s also trying to sell tickets to 14-year-olds, and the two objectives seem to work at odds against each other. Every time his character makes some meaningful statement about inequality or injustice, some ridiculous thing happens—something you might see in an Austin Powers movie—and his attempt at an eloquent statement is mired in slapstick. It’s hard enough to get around the unbelievable premise (the notion of a black presidential candidate is certainly believable, but the rationale, the set-up, and the chain of events that lead to his nomination are patently absurd), but after we accept Mays as a nominee, we’re forced to swallow all sorts of silly sight gags and broad comedy. If Rock wants us to think, he shouldn’t have written so many pratfalls into the script; if he wanted a straight farce, he should have dispensed with the maudlin empowerment speeches. Trying to appeal to everyone may be the best route for politics, but it doesn’t work that well in fluffy comedy movies. **½

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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