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(2003) (Chris Rock, Bernie Mac) (PG-13)

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Comedy: After their presidential candidate is killed in an accident, campaign workers chose a straight-talking D.C. alderman as their replacement.
Mays Gilliam (CHRIS ROCK) is an alderman in the poverty-stricken 9th Ward of Washington, D.C. Known for speaking his mind and looking out for the "small guy," Mays is popular among his constituents, but isn't remotely known outside his Ward, much to the dismay of his high maintenance and high-strung fiancée, Kim (ROBIN GIVENS), who promptly dumps him.

Things look up for Mays when the current Presidential candidate dies in a plane crash. The white leader of one party, Senator Bill Arnot (JAMES REBHORN), wants to make sure they reach the minority vote for the follow-up election in 2008 -- when he'll be the front runner -- by selecting a minority who has no chance of winning. Accordingly, he wants campaign workers Martin Geller (DYLAN BAKER) and Debra Lassiter (LYNN WHITFIELD) to tell Mays the good news that he's their man.

He doesn't believe them, of course, but eventually accepts their proposal and the three set off on a whirlwind tour of the country to promote him. It's not until he skips the prepared speeches and speaks his mind, however, that he connects with the people. He then suddenly starts catching up to his opponent, current Vice-President Brian Lewis (NICK SEARCY), while hitting it off with a local woman, Lisa Clark (TAMALA JONES), who likes him for who and what he is.

When things suddenly take a turn for the worse, however, and not even special campaign "assistant" Nikki (STEPHANIE MARCH) can make a difference, Mays decides to call in his bail bondsman brother Mitch Gilliam (BERNIE MAC) to be his running mate. With time running out before the election, Mays and his team do what they must to regain the public's confidence and win the election.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
Ask anyone who's been involved in it and they'll tell you that politics is a funny business. Not ha-ha funny, but funny in a peculiar way such as that involving the old saying about strange bedfellows. Comedian turned actor Chris Rock, however, is going for the mixture of politics and belly laughs in "Head of State."

A collection of mismatched comedy stylings, the film is a hit or miss affair that isn't anywhere as bad as I feared it would be. That said, it's not anywhere as good as it could have been with a little - okay, a lot - of work behind and in front of the camera.

Marking his directorial debut from a script he co-penned with Ali LeRoi ("Down to Earth"), Rock ("Bad Company," "Down to Earth") has taken something of a spoof approach at telling the sort of populist tale that made the likes of "Dave" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" such viewer favorites.

That's apparent from the get-go when a series of political names - such as Jesse Jackson, Rudolph Giuliani, Joe Lieberman, Bob Dole, Al Gore, and Hilary Clinton - flash on the screen like credits, but are then followed by the disclaimer "Are not in this movie."

Although never quite as imaginative or uproariously hilarious as similar material found in the "Airplane" or "Naked Gun" films, some of it is rather funny. I particularly enjoyed the negative TV campaign spots that spoof not only white America's fear of a black commander-in-chief (in a fun, "Independence Day" moment), but also just how ridiculous such attack ads can be.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the film can't and/or doesn't maintain that sense of wackiness. Much of it dries up in the second half (reinforced by the substantial decrease in frequency and loudness of laughs at our screening) when the film predictably segues into the standard "little guy overcomes the odds to beat the political system" plotline.

For a while, and earlier on rather than later, that political fish out of water theme works to a decent extent. That said, it's not consistent in doing so and it's certainly not as clever as "Dave" or believably idealistic as Capra's film.

It's possible Rock could turn into a competent director, as the effort occasionally shows signs of promise. Yet, there's enough wrong with it - the uneven pacing, haphazard storytelling, cartoon characters, repeating running gags until they're predictable and no longer funny, etc. - that one is bound to wish the film had been better.

Much of the fault obviously lies with Rock behind the camera, but just as much can be pointed at him in front of it. While he can be hilarious in standup comedy mode, his style has yet to translate that well to the big screen (at least in leading man mode). Here he constantly feels like a standup comedian who's stumbled into a movie and never becomes the character he's impersonating.

Bernie Mac ("Ocean's Eleven," "Life") is far more capable at that, but he's pretty much wasted as the protagonist's brother and eventual running mate. Dylan Baker ("Road to Perdition," "Changing Lanes") and Lynn Whitfield ("Stepmom," "Eve's Bayou") play the "straight men" to their comic characters, but can't do much with their shallowly written roles.

As least they fare better than James Rebhorn ("Far From Heaven," "Meet the Parents") as the conniving politician or Nick Searcy ("One Hour Photo," "Cast Away") as the opposing candidate (in what could have been so much more of a scathing portrayal of such insiders). Then there's Robin Givens ("Boomerang," "A Rage in Harlem") who's been reduced to a high-strung harpy who's far more annoying than funny. Tamala Jones ("Two Can Play That Game," "The Brothers") appears as the standard-issue, potential love interest, but either some of her material was left on the cutting room floor or simply was never written or filmed.

Aside from what's essentially a standup bit during a speech, Rock never really lets loose with the comedy, which pretty much holds true for the overall effort. While there are some decent laughs to be had - and certainly far more than I expected - the film's failure to keep pursing the spoof angle leads to its eventual downfall.

Nowhere in the same league as the spoof or political comedies it tries to emulate, "Head of State" offers some funny moments, but not enough to compensate for its other, wide-ranging problems. The film rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 25, 2003 / Posted March 28, 2003

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