Chris Rock makes an appealing Presidential candidate in “Head of State,” a comedy about Mays Gilliam, a Washington D.C. alderman who is thrown into the race after a plane crash kills the candidates for President and Vice President just weeks before the election. The idea is to use Mays as a placeholder so that one of the party regulars can be the candidate in 2008. At first, Mays does what he is told by the party’s handlers. He wears a suit and tie and speaks in meaningless platitudes. Then he decides to be himself and speak from his heart and the voters begin to respond.
Yes, it’s a little bit “Rocky” and a little bit “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” And it’s more than a little bit Chris Rock’s stand-up routine. But his stand-up is pretty funny, and a lot funnier than his previous movies. This one, directed and co-written by Rock, is a real-life version of the story it tells. Rock is breaking away from what he had been told to do to succeed in Hollywood (Make a movie with Anthony Hopkins? Remake “Heaven Can Wait?” Try to act? I don’t think so.) and just being himself, which makes this a nice way to spend 90 minutes.
The joke success to failure rate is above average, as Rock goes after men, women, whites, blacks, voters, and just about everyone and everything else. Even the opening credits are a goof. Thankfully, the movie avoids the easy “white people with no soul get taught how it’s done by black people” clichés. When Mays appears at a fancy party for upper-class campaign contributors (all white) they not only already know how to do the electric slide; they are pretty good at it, even if they don’t know that “the roof is on fire” is just a metaphor. I loved it when Mays abandoned his generic campaign ads and conservative suits in favor of gangsta-flava’d music-video-style spots (the slogan was MG2K4) and threads.
It’s a shame to waste Robin Givens by making her character a one-note shrieking harpy, and Rock cannot act at all (I have never seen anyone so uncomfortable in a kissing scene), but he does get some able support from Lynn Whitfield and Dylan Baker as political advisors and Tamala Jones as the sweet girl he’d like as his first lady.
Parents should know that there is some raw humor that may be troubling or offensive to some audience members. A woman breaks up with her fiancé by telling him that he is bad in bed and “I’ve had better sex with guys who have spina bifida.” A beautiful woman on the candidate’s staff is a prostitute hired to be available so that there will not be any sex scandals (though Mays turns her down). There are jokes about drinking and drugs (though Mays refuses to accept campaign contributions from a man who markets malt liquor to minors). There is a lot of hitting and slapping that is supposed to be comic and jokes about assassination attempts.
Families who see this movie should talk about why what Mays says is so appealing to voters. His diagnoses of the problems may be right, but does he offer any solutions? When are we likely to have a black President, and who is it likely to be? What does it mean to “dress for the job you want?” Was it true that the options Mays had were limited because he had to represent the entire black race the way a white candidate would not? Why was Lisa’s advice to “run your race” so important?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Kevin Kline in “Dave” and Robert Redford in “The Candidate.” They might also enjoy James Garner and Jack Lemmon in “My Fellow Americans.” Mature audiences will enjoy Rock’s appearance as a forgotten apostle in “Dogma” and as a hit man in “Nurse Betty.”