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
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