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Head of State: Rock The Vote 

Rating: **1/2

Chris Rock
STARS Chris Rock, Bernie Mac

HOUSE PARTY: Chris Rock and Bernie Mac aim for the Oval Office in Head of State (Photo: DreamWorks)
  • HOUSE PARTY: Chris Rock and Bernie Mac aim for the Oval Office in Head of State (Photo: DreamWorks)

Although Mel Brooks recruited Richard Pryor to help with the screenplay for what would eventually become the 1974 comedy classic Blazing Saddles, he had intended for the rising young comic to play the leading role in the film. But the studio nixed that idea: At the time, Pryor was known primarily for his controversial stand-up performances, and backers feared either that his presence would hurt the film's box office or that he would inject his own firebrand strain of satire into a movie that wasn't exactly p.c. to begin with. Therefore, Brooks had to cast Cleavon Little in the part, and Pryor would go on to a motion picture career that, aside from his brilliant concert films and some choice moments opposite Gene Wilder, would castrate or subjugate the actor's raw comic genius at every turn (Brewster's Millions, The Toy, Superman III and many more too depressing to name).In today's "anything goes" environment, however, studios will back whatever's placed before them, no matter how tasteless, disgusting, infantile or, yes, controversial -- all of which makes Chris Rock's big-screen choices all that more perplexing. Here's a black comedian who, like Pryor before him, has become renowned for his sock-it-to-'em stand-up routines. He's not shackled by the tentativeness of the Hollywood set -- at least, not to the extent of Pryor -- and yet the best he can offer us for entertainment is the sub-par buddy flick Bad Company and the wretched Heaven Can Wait remake Down to Earth? Where's the fire, the fury, the indignant outrage? Why is he saddling us with tepid flicks that could have been made by performers with far less of an edge? At this point, even little Haley Joel Osment inspires more on-screen trepidation than Rock.

Of course, this all had the potential to change with the release of Head of State, which finds Rock cast as a candidate for the office of President of the United States. If there was ever a time when we could use a raucous political satire to shake things up -- to stick it to an insidious and evil administration that continues to be responsible for the deaths of scores of innocent people (Americans and abroad) -- well, this is clearly that time.

Unfortunately, Head of State isn't that movie. Rather than grab the political bull by the horns -- as did Warren Beatty's Bulworth a few years back or Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine a few months back -- Rock (serving as star, director, co-writer and co-producer) is content to merely make a comedy that, after a few trims of choice profanity, could easily have played on network TV as a pilot for a proposed sit-com. My Big Fat Freak Election, anyone?

Still, for a movie that traffics in timidity rather than temerity, Head of State is better than his recent output for the simplest of reasons: It offers laughs, something the other comedies conveniently forgot to do. The narrative framework is basic, even shoddy, and the film offers no surprises in its characterizations -- you know which characters will emerge as villains, which ones will have a change-of-heart, etc. And yet the tedium is never allowed an opportunity to truly take hold (the faintest of praise, I know, but bear with me) because just as we're slumping in our seats along comes a great gag that perks us back up.

Though the movie doesn't name parties, it's not hard to ascertain that Mays Gilliam (Rock), a poor alderman who works in a Washington DC slum, is supposed to be Democratic. Even more obvious, his rival from the other party (Nick Searcy) is a Southern politico who doesn't believe in gun control and whose campaign slogan is "God bless America, and no place else!" Sound like anybody we know?

At any rate, after his party's candidates for president and vice president are killed when their planes crash into each other, a scheming senator (James Rebhorn) handpicks Mays to run for president, figuring that even though his pawn will be hopelessly crushed in the 2004 election, at least his party will have secured the minority vote and thereby elevate the senator's own bid for the presidency in 2008.

At first, Mays does indeed get clobbered in the polls, as he dutifully recites the same old rhetoric fed to him by his campaign advisors (Dylan Baker and Lynn Whitfield). It takes his older brother Mitch (Bernie Mac), a bail bondsman who's quick with his fists and his tongue, to convince him that he needs to abandon the party line and start speaking from his own heart. Once Mays follows that advice, addressing real issues and speaking more colorfully ("That sh-t ain't right!" he tells a roomful of working-class Americans when addressing matters like health care and employee wages), his numbers in the poll rise dramatically. An off-color comment captured by a news camera (a jibe not unlike one Michael Moore himself would utter) damages Mays' popularity, but he hopes to rebound after he announces his pick for a running mate: his brother Mitch, who's about as politically savvy as a Care Bear (when a news show host asks him for his thoughts on NATO, he responds, "I don't know Nato, and I'm not gonna talk bad about people behind their backs.").

It'd be a shame to spoil the movie's big laughs on these pages, so I'll refrain. But the film could have used more mock-campaign commercials like the gut-busters on view here, while tired concepts like elderly white folks dancing to hip-hop should have been scrapped to allow more playing time to a fresher exploration of how the white establishment would be (pardon the pun) Rocked by the very notion of a black man a mere stone's throw away from the White House.

As for Rock and Mac, their personalities overwhelm the paper-thin characters they're forced to portray -- in other words, you never forget you're watching Chris Rock and Bernie Mac -- but at least the movie serves as an adequate vehicle for them to display their considerable talents. These two should be paired again, albeit in a more uncompromising vehicle that will allow them to truly bring on the noise, bring on the funk, and bring down the House.

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