THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"HEAD OF STATE"

Chris Rock is a very funny guy, but he's had a scattershot big screen career. When he's in other people's movies - Kevin Smith's Dogma or Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty, for instance - he comes off really well. On the other hand, the material Rock generates on his own has consistently been dreck like Down to Earth or (shudder) Pootie Tang. For the first twenty minutes or so, I thought his new comedy Head of State was going to be another loser. Then it started to get funny. Perhaps Rock is feeling more comfortable figuring out how to effectively use his comic talents in service of a story.


Chris Rock makes an unlikely presidential candidate in the comedy Head of State
 
He plays Mays Gilliam, a neighborhood Alderman in Washington, DC. When one of the presidential candidates is killed in a plane crash, the party (never named, but reasonably assumed to be the Democrats) needs someone to run against much the much despised opponent, Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy). However, the powerful Senator Bill Arnot (James Rebhorn) wants to make sure that the replacement candidate doesn't do too well; he has plans to run on his own in four years and wants to make sure there's no real competition for the party's nomination. He engineers a plan to run Mays. It looks good for the party, he argues, to support the first ever African-American candidate. Even more importantly, the unknown Mays has little chance of winning.

Armed with a team of advisors including campaign manager Martin Geller (Dylan Baker) and senior advisor Debra Lassiter (Lynn Whitfield), Mays sets out to become President. He soon tires of being told what to say, and adopts a more streetwise approach to speechmaking. Creating his own campaign slogan - "That ain't right!" - Mays appeals to the common man and, especially, minorities, who suddenly feel a part of the political process. Soon, Mays is catching up to Lewis in the polls and even loosening up our nation's capitol (by playing Nelly's summer anthem "Hot in Herre" at a black tie campaign dinner). Arnot is not amused, so he sets out to sabotage Mays' campaign.

The set-up to Head of State is pretty forced. The idea of plucking an unknown Alderman to be a presidential candidate is not even remotely realistic. The plot uses some pretty absurd logic to explain how Mays gets the job. However, once the character is established, the film takes off with some funny political satire. Mays drives around in a big tour bus that looks more suited to the latest Master P tour than it does to an election. He chooses his bail bondsman brother Mitch (Bernie Mac) to be his running mate because Mitch is the only person he trusts. And there's a good running gag in which Mays yells for security every time someone annoys him (the offender is immediately wrestled to the ground). I laughed, too, at Mays' first reaction to running for president: he instantly imagines himself getting assassinated.

Head of State is the latest movie to suggest that our country's political situation would be greatly improved if a common man ran for office. Someone who speaks the truth, who can't be bought by lobby groups or swayed by popularity polls. We seem to get one of these films each decade or so (the Kevin Kline comedy Dave was the entry in the 90's). If that was all Head of State had to say, I might have dismissed it as a mindless comedy. I think the film is smarter than that, though. Like the recent Bringing Down the House, this picture uses broad racial stereotypes to get laughs. Unlike the Steve Martin-Queen Latifah comedy, it uses that stereotyping to make a point. It suggests that minority groups don't feel represented by our political system; they don't feel they have a voice, and that's why voter turnout among minorities is typically low. More than that, Rock (who co-wrote and directed) implies that there would be less apathy if we had a political leader who understood the issues many minorities care about. Behind the humor in Head of State is a certain amount of anger; not hostile anger, but righteous anger. And Rock has an excellent point: the year is 2003 and the idea of a black president is still only viable as a "high concept" for a movie. Advances have certainly been made, but our country has a long way to go in appropriately diversifying its elected officials. I appreciate the fact that this movie addresses the issue in a way that is thoughtful without being didactic, funny without being trivial.

Not everything here works. A romance between Mays and a new girlfriend is nothing but predictable, and a recurring bit about his status-craving ex (Robin Givens) gets old quickly. Those bits are not the heart of the movie, though. This is a story about what our election process needs. And perhaps the most gratifying thing is that Mays Gilliam appeals to lots of voters in the film. Not just black or white voters, but everyone who feels disenfranchised with a system in which so many of our leaders are so unlike ourselves.

( out of four)


Head of State is rated PG for language, some sexuality and drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.

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