If Chris Rock ever hires an ace director and screenwriter to shepherd him on his quest toward comedic immortality, he will be a force to reckon with. Until then, though, he's a would-be auteur hoisted on the petard of either aesthetic indifference or sheer inability. No matter how sharp his tongue and honed his delivery, the comic makes for one grievously bad director and almost as regrettable a leading man. His new film, "Head of State," often rocks as hard as its star-director, but as a movie it's the wrong kind of joke.
Not that the guy isn't funny, sometimes outrageously so. In his latest collaboration with writer Ali LeRoi (the pair wrote the most recent iteration of "Heaven Can Wait"), Rock plays a Washington alderman, Mays Gilliam, who's committed to doing the right thing, no matter how hopeless. He's a professional do-gooder, which is why when he's called on to run for president of the United States (don't ask), he rises to the occasion despite fears of assassination. The guy believes in his country, but because he's played by one of the most fiercely political comics working today, the call to duty isn't easy. America loves hip-hop and Colin Powell, but for Rock what's more instructive -- and grist for his comic mill -- is that divide between white love of black culture and white fear of a black planet.
Once Gilliam agrees to run for president, he's off on a whirlwind tour across the country, where he whoops it up with Texas cowboys and smiles at cheese in Wisconsin, chasing an opponent whose motto is "God bless America -- and no one else!" With a power suit hanging off his pipe-cleaner figure, the candidate initially follows the lead of his salt-and-pepper handlers (Dylan Baker and Lynn Whitfield), who are taking orders from a senatorial power behind the scenes (James Rebhorn). The filmmakers, in turn, follow the lead of those presidential fictions in which the imaginary commander in chief is more politically liberal than his off-screen counterparts -- "Dave" versus Clinton, "The West Wing" versus Bush Jr. -- although, in this instance, the candidate leans as far to the left as Michael Moore. (Albeit with a heart to match an epic mouth.)
Nothing much happens until Gilliam's big brother, Mitch (a terrific Bernie Mac), bulldozes in and forces him back on the path of righteousness. It's then that the gloves come off with a flourish. Do you work in a hotel you can't afford to stay in, shouts Gilliam to lusty applause, and work in a mall in which you can't afford to shop? The politician's style (and Rock's delivery) is "Showtime at the Apollo" brash, but the politics could be straight from Barbara Ehrenreich's bestseller "Nickel and Dimed." If these were the 1930s and Mr. Gilliam were, like Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith, mounting a filibuster from the Senate floor, the rhetoric would sound less radical. In the current climate, Gilliam's unfashionable insistence on poverty as a deeply American issue is more than just startling -- it's downright heretical.
It's a measure of Rock's irreverence that one of the more blistering if shocking gags in the film is Gilliam's nightmare fantasy of being shot as president while framed against an American flag the size of Lake Erie. An equal-opportunity gadfly, Rock never could be accused of political correctness, which is to the comic good of his movie. (However, to judge by the shabby treatment of Robin Givens, who plays a shrieking gold-digger, he does have a long way to go with the ladies.) Still, what's more startling about the assassination fantasy isn't what it says about race in America, but the image of Rock sending up America's fears about black-and-white relations while wrapped in the country's other essential colors, namely those of the red, white and blue.
At the launch of his journey from partisan puppet to man of the street, Gilliam trades in his button-down corporate suit for a denim jacket emblazoned with an American flag. Even the dancers flanking Nate Dogg -- who, like Jonathan Richman in "There's Something About Mary," periodically drops in to deliver some musical narration -- wear red, white and blue. (They're fly girls gone wild for America.) Rock can't set up a decent-looking shot, and he doesn't care about niceties such as character development and all that narrative downtime in between jokes. But he nonetheless wrings biting humor from serious issues with the sort of ferocity that made Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce men of respect as well as comedy.
`Head of State'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for language, some sexuality and drug references
Times guidelines: Given the fairly raunchy jokes and language, it's a surprise this isn't rated R.
Chris Rock...Mays Gilliam
Bernie Mac...Mitch Gilliam
Dylan Baker...Martin Geller
Nick Searcy...Brian Lewis
Lynn Whitfield...Debra Lassiter
DreamWorks Pictures presents a 3 Arts Entertainment production, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Chris Rock. Writers Chris Rock, Ali LeRoi. Producers Ali LeRoi, Chris Rock, Michael Rotenberg. Director of photography Donald E. Thorin. Production designer Steven Jordan. Editor Stephen A. Rotter. Costume designer Amanda Sanders. Music Marcus Miller, David "DJ Quik" Blake. Casting Victoria Thomas. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
In general release.