Head of State Movie Review

There's a chance Al Gore might have wrestled the presidency from George W. Bush in 2000 if he could've mustered 1/100th of the charisma and common sense Chris Rock displays as politician-for-the-people Mays Gilliam in Head of State. An alderman serving the toughest neighborhood in Washington, D.C., Gilliam is selected by an unidentified liberal party to run for president when their candidate dies in a plane crash. The political pundits know Gilliam's chances are slim, but they hope he'll attract minority support so their frontrunner (a well-cast James Rebhorn) can cruise to victory in 2008.

Once on the campaign trail, though, Gilliam discovers that he's in tune with the people and ready to be the country's next leader. Encouraged by his brother (Bernie Mac) to speak his mind, Gilliam climbs the public opinion polls, courts a headstrong hottie from his 'hood (Tamala Jones), and puts a scare into his opponent - the incumbent Vice President (Nick Searcy) who keeps reminding us he's "a war hero and Sharon Stone's cousin."

Political campaigns are not sprints to the finish line. They're drawn out marathons that slowly build support one vote at a time. Such is the case with State, which takes extremely sloppy (and silly) first steps out of the ballot box but finds its stride one broad joke after another. Crass skits and the presence of a screeching Robin Givens almost bury State before it can state its case, but thankfully, Rock and co-screenwriter Ali LeRoi save their best material for the campaign, when State's anonymous political party morphs into an old school house party, electric slide and all.

Making his directorial debut, Rock slips in a number of gut-busting visual gags that catch us off-guard. They last but 5 seconds, and include a repetitive assassination scenario and a glimpse at a training camp for presidential whores. The most inspired, though, involves voter turnout for California's Caucasian population.

Such silliness needs grounding, and Rock recruits a solid supporting cast for the task. Before State can succumb to Sandler-esque pockets of juvenile humor, stoic and steadfast turns by Dylan Baker and Lynn Whitfield (playing campaign advisors) steer the boat back to calmer waters. However, Rock wisely balances their natural conservatism with a return of the Mac in the film's second half, who agrees to be Gilliam's running mate. Mac instantly increases the energy flow onscreen. He's a force of nature, a rush of wind that blows the dust off this record and gives it a beat.

State does struggle to milk its main joke for 90 minutes, as some scenes scream of filler. A pre-debate fistfight and a sweet but superfluous puppy-dog courtship kill time between Rock's rants from the presidential podium. It's here that the comedian plays to his strengths, building his character's political platform with sharp social commentary typical of Rock's stand-up routines. God help us, he even makes a number of relevant points. The Democrats could do worse in 2004.

It's a backhanded compliment, considering Rock's laundry list of cinematic duds (Pootie Tang, anyone?), but the SNL veteran has succeeded in State where countless others have failed. And he finally directed a funny "Chris Rock" movie, the sharpest one to date.

DVD features an "outrageous" commentary by Rock (not really that outrageous) plus a handful of deleted scenes and making-of bits. Rock on, Mr. President.


Head of State Rating

" OK "

Rating: PG-13, 2003


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