"Head of State" is Chris Rock's debut as the director and as the head writer of a major film. In a way, this movie shows Rock's potential and his ability to make a smart movie, but those elements aren't really present here.
Now for the story: The presidential and vice presidential candidates of an unnamed party are killed when their campaign planes crash into each other less than two months before the 2004 election. I wonder if the crash is a cover to a hidden meaning behind Rock's views on white politics--but now I'm just rambling. Seeking a replacement candidate, the party's most likely candidate to-be surprisingly picks Mays Gilliam (Chris Rock), a Washington, D.C. alderman who has saved a woman and her cat from a burning building. There's no way Gilliam can win, and that's why Sen. Bill Arnot (James Rebhorn) picked him; to exploit him as being the first black candidate for the party, thus appealing to the African American crowd come 2008 when Sen. Arnot himself, will run for president.
As a political side note, most critics have assumed this unnamed party to be the Democrats, however if that were true, then Gilliam wouldn't be the first black nominee. Al Sharpton is already in the 2004 race, and he's not even the first black. Although the film does go to great lengths to make Gilliam look like a democrat, it won't be inaccurate to say that he is. His opponent has the endorsement from "big business," while Gilliam has the working-class vote locked. There are other clues too, but in a fictitious movie we can't label the parties the Democrats and the Republicans.
Gilliam's opponent is Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy), the incumbent vice president who never fails to mention that he's a war hero and is Sharon Stone's cousin. There’s a certain clever appeal to this villain, but that quickly vanishes every time we hear his motto: "God bless America--and no place else."
The film continually makes fun of the American political system. Is it funny? That is up for you to decide. Mays quickly gets his own team of campaign managers, one of them being a prostitute named Nikki (Stephanie March). Campaign manager Martin Geller (Dylan Baker) explains, "We got tired of getting caught up in sex scandals, so we commissioned our own team of superwhores." Then we see a flashback where dozens of women are going through boot camp for prostitutes. I admit, I chuckled a few times.
The first week of Gilliam's campaign is rough. He has been following the instructions of his campaign advisers, Geller and Debra Lassiter (Lynn Whitfield), and has been sticking to the pre-written script from Lassiter, but he soon questions the effectiveness when he finds himself favored at only 10% in the polls. Little does Gilliam know that Geller and Lassiter are actually working for Sen. Arnot, and purposely sabotaging Gilliam's shot at the White House.
Then me meet Gilliam's brother, Mitch (Bernie Mac), a Chicago bail bondsman and now the newly appointed nominee for vice president. For some unexplained, undeveloped reason, Mitch likes to punch people. When greeted by a commissioner, Mitch decks him in the face. Mac's character needed a lot work, or should have been left out.
The romance element doesn't work very well, either. At the beginning of the film, Gilliam is dumped by his fiancé, Kim (Robin Givens), because she thought he'd do something more in life than become a lowly alderman. But when she finds out he is running for president, she turns into a mad stalker who follows him everywhere. Her nagging shrill is the con to having movie theaters equipped with 18 speakers. But at least she knows what it means to be dating the president. Gilliam's new interest, Lisa (Tamala Jones), is a gas station attendant who doesn't immediately fall for the main character as most of them never do, right away. But you'd think she would turn around a lot sooner now that Gilliam is running for president. I guess the point is to prove that Lisa cares about the man, not his status.
There are some great moments in the movie. It picks up when Gilliam turns off the teleprompter displaying his pre-written speech, and begins to freestyle using his own thoughts. In front of a large crowd, Gilliam begins rapping about all the problems in the country and is quickly welcomed by the masses. I smiled through much of his speech, but then realized that this is nothing more than Chris Rock stand-up. I can't give him credit as a good actor when he is just doing his natural thing as a comedian. Whenever he wasn't on stage or in front of a microphone, he really wasn't that funny.
Gilliam and his opponent finally square-off in a debate near the end of the film. This again would have been a great time for Rock to shine and make his character steal the show from the favorable vice present. However, there is no brains in this segment. How can you expect the vice president to even have a chance when his slogan is: "God bless America--and no place else." Sure, it's funny, but it isn't fair for Gilliam to attack him because of that ridiculous statement that only politicians in movies would say.
There are some good spots in the movie, but there are many bland areas as well. Teetering back and forth on whether or not I would say "Head of State" is a genuine comedy, I am forced to remind myself of a scene where JonBenet Ramsey is inserted into a tasteless joke, and reassure myself that the answer is no. In the words of his own slogan, "That ain't right." Chris Rock is too smart for this movie. He can do better and I believe he eventually will.
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