HEAD OF STATE
Director: Chris Rock
Cast: Chris Rock, Bernie Mac, Dylan Baker, Tamala Jones, Lynn Whitfield, Robin Givens, James Rebhorn, Nick Searcy
MPAA Rating: (for language, some sexuality and drug references)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 3/28/03
Review by Mark Dujsik
There are certain people that you wouldn't think would pull punches if given free reign, and Chris Rock is one of them in my mind. But here he is as writer, director, and star of Head of State, and I can't help but thinking that his satire on American politics is far too subdued to be an accurate representation of his real thoughts on the current social climate. That's not to say he isn't saying things that need to be said, it's just that much of what he says is either of common knowledge or in safe territory. I'd expect the comic to be more controversial given such an extensive outlet as his own movie. There are a few occasions of less cautious ideas arising, but for the most part, Rock goes down a fairly typical list. Politicians have abandoned their duty to the people in favor of big business interests, votes, and future political success. They engage in empty attacks based on non-issues and cheap rhetoric. Political debates have become as intellectually appealing as school kids arguing over whose dad could beat up the other kid's dad. Yes, and…?
Rock plays Mays Gilliam, a D.C. alderman with a close relationship to his constituency and community. He's gone through a political career avoiding the influence of bureaucracy and presenting himself as a man of the people. It's made him incredibly popular in his district but has ostracized him from any advancement, which royally peeves his girlfriend Kim (Robin Givens). She breaks up with him, and things get worse from there. Meanwhile in other political news, a plane crash has killed a presidential candidate and his running mate, leading to a nominee vacancy in Gilliam's party. The party powers-that-be have already thrown in the towel and are looking ahead to the next election where, with the right candidate now, Senator Bill Arnot (James Rebhorn) should be in prime position to win the Presidency. After saving a woman and her cat from a house that was moments from being demolished, Gilliam has been marked a hero, and Arnot thinks he's the right man for the candidacy, showcasing the party's progressive ideas. That means it's up to campaign manager Martin Geller (Dylan Baker) and advisor Debra Lassiter (Lynn Whitfield) to shape Gilliam into a candidate who will get votes—but not too many.
The premise of the movie is promising and sets the stage for astutely absurd observations of American politics. One has to wonder if similar backdoor conversations weren't happening back before the 1988 election and if they aren't happening right now as the 2004 election creeps up on us. The similarities are closer to '88, considering Gilliam's opponent is the Vice President and has served eight years under—we can only assume—a popular President. The movie has no party identification, but it's safe to assume that, in a real world context, Gilliam is the Democrat and Vice President Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy) is the Republican. There's also the funny bit about party hiring "super-whores" to suit the sexual needs of the candidates after a string of sex scandals, which also points us into that mindset. Not that the Republicans were ever clean in that area; it just seems the Democrats were and are more prone to attacks aimed at youthful indiscretions. There are also the negative ads, which most definitely recall George Bush Sr.'s campaign. The ridiculousness of these is capitalized by one ad that makes the logical political assumption that if Gilliam didn't attend an anti-cancer rally, he must be pro-cancer.
There's a lot that works along the same lines, like half of the crowd standing up when Lewis is introduced while the other half sits completely still and vice versa. And there's Lewis' priceless slogan to end all of his public appearances: "God bless America and no place else." Even so, the jokes are of a fairly general nature and never really go beyond that. Take, for example, Gilliam's off-record statement about American foreign policy and how it may affect violence at home. Instead of tackling this idea in the spirit of the rest of the jokes, Gilliam apologizes for it. Why? Why doesn't Gilliam speak out against a party that actually chooses a candidate who is likely to lose for the purposes of public image? There's prime material to satirize within the movie's own premise that is never realized. Instead, the movie goes for random and predictable jokes to fill in the spaces, for example the ex-girlfriend becoming obsessive about their relationship, which she is convinced still exists. The movie has an idea with Gilliam's older brother Mitch (Bernie Mac) coming in as his running mate, but it comes too late in the movie to make a proper impact.Rock does take some amusingly subversive jabs at modern racism, most notably in a scene where an entire white, upper-class California suburb runs to the polls after a leak about Gilliam winning the state comes out. Obvious? Yes. Funny? Yes. Head of State should be saying more things like this. Rock has it in him; you can feel it throughout the movie. He inches ever so slightly toward those political hypocrisies that are right in front of us—that everyone sees but hardly anyone wants to point out. Maybe it is the most relevant sign of our times that those things remain unspoken here.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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