And if the movie was imagined by garden variety ninth graders instead of honor roll kids, its protagonist might be chosen to run for President in a conference-room decision involving three people, not by an annoyingly protracted series of primaries. Welcome to
(L to r) Chris Rock and Bernie Mac are brothers and running mates in Head of State.
Head of State, a political fable for people who would rather not get bogged down by the details.

Chris Rock plays a Washington, D.C. alderman who is picked for candidacy because, although he couldn't possibly win, he will presumably make the party look good and set up its actual candidate (a business-as-usual white man) for the next election. Along the campaign trail, Mays Gilliam (Rock) decides to take matters into his own hands, transforming his campaign into a rap video with occasional calls for livable wages and the return of corporal punishment.

Mays' nostalgic fondness for slapping kids around is explained with the arrival of his brother, a bail bondsman played by Bernie Mac. Mitch (Mac), who becomes Mays' running mate, hands out beatings like campaign buttons, slapping his way through crowds of lobbyists and bonding with his brother by throwing him through a glass coffee table. Only Bernie Mac, whose menace always feels like a defense against a world gone mad, could make this funny.

And only Chris Rock the screenwriter could make Chris Rock the first-time director look like anything but a rank amateur. The actors are blocked incompetently, the action jumps from realism to farce and back at will, and the camera has less finesse than a Democratic strategist. But now and then, the script inserts a bit of left-field lunacy that could only work in a movie with no coherent style. They are the kind of gags that would be ruined by description, and they tend to come at the end of dull, obvious scenes, just when the audience is starting to yawn.

Unfortunately, the best of those gags get repeated three or four times, and don't amount to much without the element of surprise. Other strange devices get repeated despite not having been funny

Dir. Chris Rock; writ. Rock, Ali LeRoi; feat. Rock, Bernie Mac, Tamala Jones, Lynn Whitfield, Dylan Baker, Robin Givens (PG-13)
in the first place, like the Greek chorus (featuring one rapper and two dancers clad in goofy red, white, and blue outfits) who pop up now and then to explain things we already understand. (A more subtle musical commentary late in the film, in which a voice on the soundtrack gently croons things like "lucky cracker," works much better.)

Head of State is a lightweight movie that just barely provides enough laughs to justify its existence. But up against this month's other racial comedy, Bringing Down the House, it can't help but look good; as simplistic and scattershot as it is, Rock's screenplay at least allows some of its characters to feel like human beings. In today's West Wing world, audiences certainly have more convincing fictitious presidents to choose from, but we've seen worse ones as well. •

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