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Dustin Putman

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Head of State (2003)
2 Stars

Directed by Chris Rock
Cast: Chris Rock, Lynn Whitfield, Dylan Baker, Bernie Mac, Tamala Jones, Nick Searcy, James Rebhorn, Robin Givens, Stephanie March, Jude Ciccolella, Tracy Morgan, Ray Clark
2003 – 95 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for language, some sexuality, and drug references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 29, 2003.

A kinda-sorta cross between the 1992 Eddie Murphy vehicle "The Distinguished Gentleman" and the 1993 Kevin Kline comedy "Dave," what "Head of State" lacks in originality it makes up for with its sharp-witted, often very funny satire of the presidential election races. What also helps is having comedian Chris Rock co-write and direct himself. While his previous starring roles have been in lackluster movies that did a disservice to his talent (2002's "Bad Company," anyone?), "Head of State," at least in part, recaptures just how good Rock can be. He, above all, knows what is funny and how to get a laugh, and there is enough energy in the proceedings to carry him through this lightweight entertainment.

With the presidential election only two months away and suddenly no one running opposite current Vice President Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy), party leader Senator Bill Arnot (James Rebhorn) chooses straight-talking D.C. Alderman Mays Gilliam (Chris Rock) as his nominee. With Debra Lassiter (Lynn Whitfield) and Martin Geller (Dylan Baker) acting as his advisors, Mays suddenly finds himself at the forefront of the public's attention, as he travels around the U.S. to try to sway the vote away from the generic, dishonest Lewis. Mays surprises when his honesty and matter-of-fact opinions about the nation's issues captures the voters' attention, suddenly making him a threat to Arnot, who has intentionally elected him to lose so he himself will have a clear shot to run for President in 2008.

The source of fun in "Head of State" is that, while much of the comedy stems from white-black relations, it does it in a clever, entertaining tone that doesn't overtly play the race card (think Martin Lawrence in 2003's dismally offensive "National Security"). Its jabs at the election races are also tart and edgy, perfectly timely in today's political climate, as the public questions President Bush's qualifications, or lack thereof. A running gag in which nominee Lewis is always backing himself up by touting that he is Sharon Stone's cousin is quite funny, as is his tagline ("God bless America, and no place else!").

After a string of motion pictures that haven't satisfactorily showcased Chris Rock's comedic skills (he is known mostly for his hilarious, profane stand-up routines), Rock has finally put pen to paper, taking matters into his own hands. As Mays Gilliam, an all-around nice guy who isn't above speaking his mind, Rock is front and center in the action, effortlessly garnering big laughs. If there is a criticism to be made, it should be toward the studio, Dreamworks Pictures, who have forced him to make a PG-13 comedy when an R would have really given Rock the liberty to do his thing. As is, there are times when Rock is unfortunately forced to hold back.

As Mays' big brother, Mitch, who greets people by punching or slapping them across the face, Bernie Mac (2001's "Ocean's Eleven") is mostly background dressing, only popping up for a handful of scenes. It's just as well—while Mac gets some laughs, he is decidedly weaker at inhabiting an actual screen character than Rock is. On the female side, Robin Givens goes deliciously over-the-top as Kim, Mays' unhinged ex-girlfriend from hell, while Tamala Jones (2000's "The Ladies Man") plays things sweet as Lisa, a gas station attendant whom Mays falls for. The romance between Mays and Lisa is underutilized in the film's whole scheme of things, although it does its job.

There isn't much that is terribly wrong with "Head of State;" it's just that there's precious little for the viewer to walk away with. Successful laughs are scattered throughout the brisk 95-minute running time, but there are almost as many that fail to taking off the landing strip. The result is a crowd-pleasing comedy, entertaining enough (mainly because of Chris Rock) for audiences in search of nothing more than a few good chuckles, but too slight to be a completely memorable experience.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman