Archive for Thursday, March 27, 2003

Rock unqualified for ‘Head of State’

(PG-13) *1/2

March 27, 2003

At this rate, Chris Rock might never headline a good movie ... unless
it's a concert film of his stand-up act.

The talented comedian hasn't yet found a way to translate his
uproarious, stinging social commentary into a cinematic mouthpiece.
It's not that he's gone out on a limb and failed, it's that his aim
has been so low to begin with.

Previously, you could fault a poor choice of filmmakers and scripts
for inexplicably lame efforts such as "Bad Company," "Pootie Tang" or
"Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back." Now with "Head of State," Rock has
no one to blame but himself. He co-wrote it (with fellow "The Chris
Rock Show" scribe Ali LeRoi) and he makes his directorial debut.

The result is a semi-funny idea (black guy runs for president) that
is executed poorly. This political comedy is about as convincing as a
campaign promise, and most of its jokes have been around longer than
Strom Thurmond.

You know where things are going when a film's funniest moments
involve old white people kickin' it to hip-hop music.

Rock plays Mays Gilliam, a heroic D.C. alderman who is recruited by
the left to be the presidential nominee after the death of its
frontrunner in a plane crash. The party's plan is simple: If you
can't win the election, at least choose a candidate who will gain you
credibility in future elections.

An upstanding minority candidate like Gilliam is perfect, as long as
he tows the party line. (One of his aids hands him a card prior to a
fund-raiser, saying, "Here are your off-the-cuff remarks. Learn
them.") But Gilliam believes he can actually win, so he starts
creating his own platform aimed at appealing to the average Joe.

There are stretches during "Head of State" that hint at its
potential. While campaigning and debating, Rock's character makes
several street language-laced rants against the system that have an
impact.

He asks what's wrong with society when, "schools have old-ass books
but brand new metal detectors?"

These moments are desperately needed in a film that lacks momentum.
While they never quite work up the angry truth of similar ones
spouted in the superior "Bulworth," they at least give Rock a
stand-up style platform to vent his considerable skill with words.

Also good is Bernie Mac, who plays Gilliam's bail bondsman brother
and eventual running mate. The energy level rises whenever the burly
sitcom star appears, especially when he gives an interview explaining
why someone in his profession is perfect to help "bail out" the
country.

Other decent actors help keep the thin plotline from totally
derailing. Reliable thespians Dylan Baker ("Happiness") and Lynn
Whitfield ("Eve's Bayou") effectively portray Gilliam's managerial
staff. And Nick Searcy is amusing as his Southern-bred, right-wing
opponent, who spouts the campaign catchphrase "God bless America ...
and no place else."

Of dubious note is former Mike Tyson sparring mate Robin Givens, who
appears as the gold digger girlfriend that Gilliam is dumped by
before he gets famous. You'd be hard pressed to uncover a worse
performance by a name actress than the one given by Givens. It's a
shrill, overbearing stereotype that must be seen to be disbelieved.

There are occasional moments of humor in "Head of State," but the
ratio is about one for every 10 jokes attempted. The overall
sloppiness of the plot (what happens to Gilliam's Black Muslim
bodyguard?) and repetition of the gags ("Security!") grow taxing even
for a throwaway comedy - and a really short one at that.

Rock needs to find a movie outlet that can play to his substantial
strengths. And he needs to do it quickly before he becomes the
comedic equivalent of Michael Dukakis.

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