Chris Rock charms his way in ‘Head of State’
The vice president of the United States seems unbeatable — he’s been in office eight years, he’s a war hero, and — oh no! — he’s Sharon Stone’s cousin. His winning slogan: “God bless America — and no place else!”
On top of that, the candidates challenging the VP die in a midair collision. What’s an underdog political party to do?
Find a patsy, of course, and bide time until the next election. In ‘Head of State,’ dastardly party boss Sen. Bill Arnot (James Rebhorn) figures by then he’ll be ready to step in and lead the party to victory.
So he dispatches political handlers Debra and Martin (Lynn Whitfield and Dylan Baker) to swoop down on a little-known neighborhood politician, Washington, D.C., Alderman Mays Gilliam (Chris Rock) and convince him to run for president.
Rock directs and stars in this comedy filled with satire, slapstick and running gags timed far enough apart that they don’t become tiresome.
His character initially doesn’t know he’s running what amounts to a mock campaign, but he starts to win over Debra and Martin — as well as voters across the United States — with his plain-spoken rants against government and corporate greed. He identifies with the everyday people — whether he’s at a Wisconsin farm, a Memphis church or a Dallas rally filled with Cowboys fans.
When he does find out he’s been set up to fail, he decides to forge ahead anyway, figuring if he drops out now, there won’t be another black candidate for 50 years.
In a comedy about a black man running for president, race absolutely figures into the jokes.
But Rock — who also co-wrote the script — targets races equitably. He gets easy laughs from scenes of a party fund-raiser full of square old white folk that suddenly gets funky: Gray-haired, crepe-skinned, pearl-bedecked political hobnobbers do the “Electric Slide,” but stampede in fear when they take literally Gilliam’s slang exclamation, “The roof is on fire.” And he skewers white California suburbanites by having them rush to the polls en masse –screaming and thrashing all the way — when they hear a last-minute news announcement that Gilliam might actually win the election, but it hinges on the results from their state.
Rock doesn’t let blacks off the hook, either. His character refuses a huge contribution from a wealthy black businessman, accusing his company of marketing malt liquor to children. When the contributor scoffs at the idea, Gilliam waves the nipple-topped bottle of “Crib” liquor — looking just like orange soda pop — and goes off on another comic rant.
Rock makes some other inventive comic choices. He cuts into the action with quick flashes that represent his thoughts — but unfortunately offers too few of them. Robin Givens has a small role as Gilliam’s ex-fiance who resorts to stalking him after she realizes she could have been the First Lady — and her run-ins with Gilliam’s security are equally comic, quick and not overdone.
His best touch was casting comedian Bernie Mac as his older brother Mitch — a half-shrewd, half-crazy bear of a man who becomes his running mate. Mac doesn’t enter the film until nearly halfway through, and his scenes with Rock leave you wanting to see more of the two together than you ultimately get.
Rock’s Gilliam is charming, smart, conscientious and appealing to voters of all races and ages — and he’s sharply funny.
And while it’s a good thing that Rock never goes too over-the-top — that’s left to Mac — you get the feeling that he had more comedy in him than he either could or would put into this film.
We’re looking forward to the next one.
‘Head of State’
Stars: Chris Rock, Bernie Mac
MPAA rating: PG-13, for language, some sexuality and drug references