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Head of State

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Chris Rock and Bernie Mac stick it to the Electoral College.

© 2003, Dreamworks
All Rights Reserved

Vote for Chris Rock? It's not nearly as awful as it sounds.

Mays Gilliam (Chris Rock) is a lowly Washington D.C. alderman who's just lost his job, his car and his girlfriend (Robin Givens). At his lowest point, Gilliam is asked to fill in for the hastily-vacated (due to death) Democratic presidential candidate, so the seat can be easily lost, and another candidate can be properly groomed for the next election in 2008. At first, Gilliam performs as directed, giving the identical speech around America and generally not thinking much about it. But when his brother (Bernie Mac) convinces Gilliam to be true to himself, the nominee takes over and begins to handle the election his way, resulting in a grass-roots campaign that puts him within striking distance of actually winning the presidency.

Clearly the comedic skills Chris Rock honed on his hilarious mid-'90s late night HBO show have found their way into his directorial debut, "Head of State" (IMDb listing). The film is wildly over the top, projects loudly and reaches for the laughs at every turn. In that very pursuit, the picture becomes more and more silly as it goes, finally ending up overshooting reality by thousands of miles. The raw materials for a light satire are there for the taking, but Rock has something bigger and more lively in mind.

Of course, Rock's film does head in some awfully familiar directions. Since Hollywood recently exhausted the cultural mixing routine with "Bringing Down the House," Rock's usage of this idea initially brings headaches. However, as with everything in this film, Rock turns the volume up on his comedy, and the laughs come soon after. "Head of State" plays exactly like "The Chris Rock Show" did, with all the action exaggerated, and social differences tossed around playfully. Caucasians get the worst of the ribbing in the film, but in doing so, Rock conjures up some uproarious imagery to soften the blow. One sequence features the news that Gilliam might actually win the race, resulting in a long, solitary shot of suburbia, with all the houses soon emptying of panicked white citizens who have been previously safe in the knowledge that this was never supposed to happen.

Rock's satire ranges from pretty sharp (Gilliam imagines his first act as president will be his assassination), to bizarre (the party has allowed him the use of a "super-whore" so any sex scandals can be avoided), to reliably funny (Gilliam's nomination bash has all the older, white attendees dancing to the latest hits with legendary urban moves), to ultimately easy (the truly political material is as flaccid as it gets these days), but in almost every scene, something is happening. I'm not thrilled with the idea of Rock doing another PG-13 comedy (this man was born to curse), but he seldom lets the pace of the picture get away from him, and that's a rare occurrence for a directorial debut. "Head of State" steals bits outright from "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" and "Almost Famous," has a tendency to repeat music cues over and over (including a Jay-Z callback that's priceless), and the storytelling is often aimed at the average 8-year-old, so as a debut, Rock needs some work on the kinks, but he clearly has skills for bigger projects.

When "State" does begin to sag, Rock has the intelligence to call in Bernie Mac to shake the film up again. Mac can always be counted on for instant laughs. He has a softer agenda in "Head of State," but Mac still kills in almost every scene he's in (far fewer scenes than the marketing suggests).

While "Head of State" isn't bravura material, it is boisterously performed and has a nice message of change that could happen in Washington someday. Maybe I'll vote for Chris Rock in 2004...

Filmfodder Grade: B-

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