Even the title of Chris Rock’s new movie is bland. You might expect the picture–about Mays Gilliam, a naive D.C. alderman who’s tapped to replace a deceased presidential candidate on the ballot as a sacrificial lamb and then energizes the electorate with his riffs–to be edgy and sharp, a satire along the lines of “Wag the Dog” or, on an even more exalted level, “Dr. Strangelove.” But despite that big grin Rock is famous for flashing, “Head of State” is utterly toothless, a tepid piece of Capra-esque fluff that never goes beyond the most juvenile stuff in dealing with its potentially rich, indeed incendiary, premise about an African-American running for the country’s highest office. Instead of tackling real political issues head-on, it’s content to recycle tired old bits of business about class conflict and politicos who spout mindless platitudes and manipulate the system for their own ends rather than having the good of the citizenry at heart. Ultimately, except for the hip-hop flavored background music and flashy clothes, it’s no more contemporary than “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” For all its faults, Warren Beatty’s “Bulworth” was more incisive on the subject of racial politics than this movie is. (As a matter of fact, so is “24.”)
Given the poor use to which Rock’s been put on the screen up till now (“Nurse Betty” apart), it’s understandable that he should have wanted to take the reins himself; but unhappily, “Head of State” shows him less auteur than poseur. The script that he’s cobbled together with Ali LeRoi is a composite of stand-up bits, clumsily “touching” moments, political humor that’s so broad that it never hits home, and inept slapstick. It also panders to its target audience by depicting all whites as clueless and venal, while showing a decidedly misogynist streak in its treatment of most female characters (the use made of Gilliam’s shrewish ex-girlfriend, played with lip-smacking gusto by Robin Givens, is especially gruesome). But while the screenplay is pretty much a mess, some of it could surely have been punched across by a director with some experience in proper staging and timing. Rock has none, and his helming is leaden and uncoordinated. There’s virtually no change of tempo through the picture–everything is played at the same vaguely hysterical pitch–and no rhythm to the editing, with long dead spots and innumerable sequences that just run on too long. As a performer Rock continues to suffer from the stiffness that’s hobbled even his best previous efforts. Comics have made a successful transition to acting before, but it can’t be done without some training; none is apparent here.
What laughs do emerge from “Head of State,” in fact, largely depend not on Rock’s work in any of his three capacities, but on the efforts of Bernie Mac, whose brusque, belligerent depiction of Mays’s bail-bondsman brother (and eventual running-mate) is genuinely funny, and of SNL player Tracy Morgan, who makes a stereotypical street hustler more amusing than one could think. On the technical level the picture is lit and shot too brightly–it aggravates the eyes rather than pleasing them–and the overall production looks pretty threadbare (the crowds at campaign rallies are ludicrously small).
Ultimately, though, the problem with “Head of State” is that it aims to be a harmless, inoffensive comedy about a subject that should have invited some really angry, potent satire. But the most trenchant observation it makes about current political problems comes accidentally, when Mays drives into a Washington convenience store parking lot and the sign for gas shows premium selling for a mere $1.54. To quote what becomes Gilliam’s campaign slogan, “That ain’t right.”