Contrary to its own marketing campaign, this film isn’t really about the first black man running for president. After all, Jesse Jackson has been trying to do this for years. And even then, Jackson has never run the campaign trail in a bus that looks like it was stolen from Shaquille O’Neil’s garage.
“Head of State” is a comedy that tries to turn the presidential election on its ear. And if this film is any prediction of what can happen to American politics, be prepared for Snoop Dogg to be in the White House in 2004.
Chris Rock plays Mays Gilliam, a Washington D.C. alderman who is tapped by the Democrats to run in the 2004 election after the current running mates are killed in a tragic plane crash. He is pulled under the wing of the party’s campaign managers Debra Lassiter (Whitfield) and Martin Geller (Baker). What they don’t tell him is that he was chosen because they needed a patsy to lose to the current VP, who is also a war hero and Sharon Stone’s cousin.
As Mays takes to the campaign trail, he learns that speaking his mind sends him skyrocketing in the polls. Soon, he takes over his campaign and runs it as he sees fit (complete with bling bling and a fund raising trip to the Player’s Ball in Detroit). Soon the race is on between the stuffed-shirt incumbent and the young black man from Washington D.C.
As a stand-up comedian, Chris Rock is a brilliant writer. And some of this comes through in his film. But as a writer who wants to tell a story, he is sorely lacking. Ultimately, what you’re left with in the film is a series of really, really funny jokes that are strung together with a flimsy storyline.
Part of the film’s problem is that it does try to tell a story. Like other wacky election comedies such as Chris Farley’s “Black Sheep,” the gags are great, but the story kinda sucks. Even in the midst of just silly situations, like Mays designing his campaign and image like a hip-hop basketball star, there’s the sense that the film is actually taking itself seriously at points. Ultimately, Rock should have stuck to the screwball comedy template and churned out a spoof-style piece like “Airplane.” Instead, he tried to tell a poignant love story and an uplifting political battle between the gags.
At times, “Head of State” panders to its audience with unapologetic political stereotypes, and other times it pulls its punches. At least Michael Moore knows that if you’re going to make a political stand, go all the way. Rock sets up the Republicans as racist, bigoted homophobes. But when it comes time to really put the nail in the coffin, he wimps out.
For example, Rock couldn’t resist taking a dig at right-wing radio with a thinly veiled Rush Limbaugh commentator (who somehow has Howard Stern’s fans). However, there’s nothing that this fake Limbaugh says to incite either side. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, at least you could respect the film if it took a stand. In the end, some of the jokes are like the self-declared “moderates” in an election. No one likes them. Plus, Mays’ political opponent is such a vacuous straw man that practically anyone could beat him in an election. Even Al Gore.
The best part of “Head of State” is when Mays chooses his bail-bondsman brother Mitch (Bernie Mac) to be his running mate because nobody else will stand on the ticket. Mac is the only part of the film that it doesn’t take seriously at all.
Like I said before, there are screamingly funny gags in the film – like a high-class hooker (Stephanie March) hired to be the candidate’s full time mistress because the party just got tired of sex scandals. It’s enough to keep you laughing periodically throughout. However, the plot is so whisper thin that even though I laughed throughout the film, I walked away unsatisfied.
This is Rock’s directorial debut, and considering this, it isn’t that bad. His biggest problem is that he also wrote it himself (with a little help from Ali LeRoi). Considering his last produced screenplay was his forgettable Down to Earth. Back in 1993, Rock wrote the commendable CB4 and didn’t fall into the same traps he did with “Head of State.” My guess is that the studio leaned on him a little too much to tell a story instead of just making a funny movie.
Bottom line. “Head of State” is better than Bulworth. But not by much.