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Head of State

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Head of State

Starring: Chris Rock, Bernie Mac
Director: Chris Rock
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: March 2003
Genre: Comedy

*Also starring: Tamala Jones, Lynn Whitfield, Dylan Baker, Jude Ciccolella, Robin Givens, Nick Searcy, Tracy Morgan, James Rebhorn

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

When you compare Chris Rock to Eddie Griffin you find a major difference between the two black comedians. In "DysFunKtional Family," Griffin brings down the house with some of the roughest humor you can imagine, the "n" word competing with the "f' word for number of times each is used to hammer home the gags. Chris Rock by contrast is funny as hell in his own, quieter way. Though he can use his expressive eyes in much the style of Griffin, he drives his points home by exposing his vulnerability, something that Griffin, regardless of a director's intentions, cannot possibly do.

In "Head of State," for example, Chris Rock is a candidate for President of the United States, but when he continues to pursue the idealistic woman (Tamala Jones) for whom he has fallen in love at first sight, avoiding his intrusive security man to catch a private moment or two with her, you can believe what you see. On the very day of the election when he fulfills a promise to a senior to drive him to work should the transportation system close down, you likewise accept this as something that he can pull off.

Small moments like that one are what makes "Head of State" an entertaining movie, one that will not bore you for a moment of its just-right 95 minutes. Its major problem is the blandness of the script coupled paradoxically with an overuse of slapstick which, at least in the preview audience with whom I was sitting did not engender anything like the roll-in-the-aisles laughter that Eddie Griffin evoked in "DysFunKtional Family." At a time that our own president is heavily criticized, particularly in urban areas like New York, you might expect "Head of State" to be a more biting satire on the level of Ivan Reitmans 1993 spoof "Dave" (the president is incapacitated by a stroke and replaced by a lookalike who wins over the public by a down-home solution to the country's problems) and Michael Ritchie's 1972 venture "The Candidate" (an idealist who runs for the Senate with the promise of integrity in his campaign only because he's bound to lose). "Head of State" has a premise similar to both of those, but while it's a pleasant enough diversion to warrant a go-see recommendation, Rock and his regular co-writer Ali LeRoi have been unable to exploit the vast potential for biting satire.

As in "Dave," a man must be persuaded to run for president because the party's candidates for the head office is dead. As in "Dave," the person persuaded to run is chosen because he is expected to lose.

After the death of party's choices, an obscure D.C.Alderman, Mays Gilliam (Chris Rock), is drafted by Senator Bill Arnot (James Rebhorn) to run for the top job: Arnot's Machiavellian plan is to have his man lose to a shoo-in from the opposing party so that Arnot could easily run for the job in 2008. Backed by his two managers, Martin Geller (Dylan Baker) and Debra Lassiter (Lynn Whitfield), Mays seeks to boost his ratings in the polls, where he lags far behind his opponent, Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy). The campaign makes for a series of sketches, some flatter than a the notes of a sixth-grade trombonist, others working because of clever execution. Chief among the former is the obligatory scene of a group of rich, older white folks boogieing to an electric slide and crip walk against their better inclinations at a fund-raising party; the movie gathers momentum once Bernie Mac appears in the role of bail bondsman, the candidate's brother, who is selected to run for vice president.

"Head of State" is a fast-moving series of riffs all framed by Nate Dogg in the role of a Greek chorus whose narration is punctuated by a bevy of dancing ho's. Rock is asked not simply to clown around but to act as a Capra-esque hero, departing from the stilted speeches on the Teleprompter to tell it like it is in America. The slogan "That Ain't Right" becomes the national tagline during the campaign with the candidate's gaining momentum as his crowds eat up the spontaneous palaver.

What this country needs now is a satire of the most trenchant sort, one laced with the kind of comedy that Chris Rock could provide if he had a better script or if indeed his purpose were not to ruffle the fewest audience feathers. "Head of State" is fine entertainment, but given the motivation to cut more deeply, Chris could do better.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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