Head of State
reviewed by Steve Sailer
UPI, March 28, 2003
In "Head of State," Chris Rock plays a Washington D.C. alderman selected to step in as a replacement Presidential candidate. On paper, this role as the first black nominee sounds like a good vehicle for the ace comic. Not because movies about politicians have a good track record. -- they comprise a badly underachieving genre -- but because the more speeches Rock can give, the less he has to act.
Indeed, in the one (intentionally) serious scene in the film, Rock delivers a fiery populist speech to a working class audience in which he demonstrates oratorical skills that would put Jesse Jackson to shame. Yet, when Rock has to interact with other actors, he looks like the TV sketch comedian he is.
At least he's better here than in last summer's rotten egg "Bad Company," in which he turned in performances as identical twins with opposite personalities that will not make anyone forget Nicolas Cage in "Adaptation."
Chris, I love you, but just because you are a brilliant stand-up comedian doesn't mean you ought to try to be a movie star. Bill Cosby failed at it and Jerry Seinfeld doesn't even try.
Rock has yet to prove he can play anything besides "the Chris Rock character." His basic shtick is that he looks like a choirboy (even at 37, Rock appears way too young to meet the Constitutional age minimum of 35) somehow possessed by the irate and incredulous soul of an old codger who hangs around the barbershop loudly divulging unwelcome truths.
The surest sign a Washington D.C. movie is going to be dopey is if they refuse to tell you that the hero is a Democrat (he's never a Republican), and instead just talk a lot about "the Party," which has a creepy Orwellian ring to it.
The next most obvious sign if it has James Rebhorn (who was the evil Secretary of Defense in "Independence Day") playing his copyrighted role as the Extremely White Soulless Official. Rebhorn, who has the thin-lipped aspect of a Cape Cod general store owner, plays a power behind the throne who wants to pick a sure loser so that he can run unopposed for the Party's nod in 2008.
The worst problem besetting "Head of State," though, is its many failed jokes. There are enough big laughs for the movie to slide by, if only there weren't so many embarrassing fizzles in-between. An attempt at humor is like an SAT question -- if you don't try it, you don't lose any points, but if you go for it and botch it, you get penalized. Some people are blessed with memories that can record all the funny bits, but too many of us can only recall the ones that bomb.
Rock's long time cowriter Ali Leroi has pointed out that even though Rock has a reputation for intellectual humor, he doesn't trust his audience to tolerate long, complicated set-ups. Rock hated his tenure at Saturday Night Live, where the laughs in a concept-driven skit might not emerge for two minutes (if ever). Rock's rule on his HBO show was that he had to make a joke at least every other time he opened his mouth.
Fortunately, Bernie Mac, who plays Rock's bail-bondsman big brother and running mate, just about saves the movie whenever he shows up with his combination of warmth and menace.
The most interesting problem with the movie is the palpable sense of moral unease that Rock emanates regarding the rap culture that his plot endorses.
It's easy to imagine a more Dionysian comic like Eddie Griffin ("Undercover Brother") wallowing into this role of the first hip-hop candidate. Rock, though, simply lacks a rapper's feeling of heedless entitlement.
For example, Rock is much less raunchy than the typical African-American comedian. I can remember only one booty joke in the whole movie. One of the seven children of a truck driver who was a strict disciplinarian, Rock comes out of a much sterner African-American tradition than the self-indulgence of the gangsta rap generation. He wants blacks to shape up, yet he's so proud of his race that he doesn't really like white people much.
Rock gives the impression that while he likes the idea of how much a hip-hop President would scandalize white folks, he's too much of a moralist to believe the whole gangsta rap phenomenon has been anything but disastrous for black people.
Rock resembles a miniature version of one of those imposing black college basketball coaches, like John Thompson of Georgetown or Nolan Richardson of Arkansas, who take eleven kids from the inner city (and maybe one seven footer from Lithuania) to the Final Four by whipping into them both a sense of discipline and a sense of racial paranoia.
It's a bracing combination, but Rock may never quite channel it into a good movie.
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