The prospect of a new Chris Rock movie, especially for those who enjoy his stand-up, can be a scary thing. We want to like him. A movie anywhere near as funny as his HBO series and specials would be a wondrous thing to see. But every time we get our hopes up, he goes and makes something like Down to Earth. His forays into semi-serious stuff -- New Jack City and Nurse Betty -- have been welcome, but Head of State was clearly never going to be one of those. It's the first of two black President movies (the other one set to star Chris Tucker as the chief exec). It's Rock's directorial debut. Its trailers haven't been that funny. Black people are poor, white people are lame . . . this is a routine we've seen many times before, including fairly recently with Queen Latifah and Steve Martin. So imagine the surprise: Head of State turns out to be actually damn funny, even if the idea of having some sport with the office of President doesn't sound all that amusing to you right now.
Don't worry about political diatribes in this film. Both candidates think poverty is bad, gun violence is bad, selling alcohol to children is bad -- anyone offended yet? The closest the film gets to an actual issue is a possible (and if so, timely) reference to Bowling for Columbine, as Rock's character, Mays Gilliam, speculates that there might be a connection between school shootings and U.S. bombings overseas. That this turns out to be his biggest campaign blunder should ring true whether you agree with the thought or not.
Even during the obligatory climactic speech, the music rises and gets sentimental, but much of the actual dialogue is calculated to amuse rather than provoke. Unlike gentler, more unabashedly pro-Democrat presidential comedies such as Dave and The American President, Head of State always punctuates potentially sentimental moments with jokes. The film doesn't even identify the two political parties, though it's fairly clear that Mays is a Democrat and his uptight Southern opponent (underrated character actor Nick Searcy) is Republican.
But then again, this film is also clearly not set in the real world, so who's to say whether our two major parties even exist therein? Mays is a Washington, D.C. alderman who gets the call to run for President when one major party's presidential and vice presidential candidates are on planes that crash into each other -- an event dryly announced by a whitebread radio announcer, who then returns to the Jay-Z song "already in progress." Presidential campaigns in this reality have on-call blowjob interns who have to attend a special boot camp for political prostitutes (and this is before Mays takes his campaign to the Player's Ball).
Mays has been set up to lose from the beginning, with the party already figuring the election's a lost cause so they might as well appeal to minorities and get their vote next time. But like in Putney Swope, an explicit influence on the Rock showcase Pootie Tang, the black man does better than expected -- especially when he stops listening to advice and takes charge of things himself. Come to think of it, this could be a metaphor for Rock's career: Head of State sees him finally steering his own vehicle, and it's easily his funniest film to date.
Rock's influences as a director and co-writer (with longtime collaborator Ali LeRoi) are sometimes blatant, but perhaps not what you'd expect -- two jokes are cribbed directly from Pee Wee's Big Adventure, for instance. He's also picked up a healthy sense of absurdism, possibly from his occasional collaborations with comedian-auteur Louis C.K. (Pootie Tang). While his work's never as blatantly surreal as C.K.'s, there is a heightened sense of lunacy to the film, from the fakeout opening credits to the negative campaigning (ads refer to Mays as "pro-cancer") to the increasingly ridiculous dialogue. (Mays's girlfriend breaks up with him in a long but super-speedily delivered harangue that concludes with her claiming to having had sex with dogs suffering from spina bifida who were nonetheless better than Mays.)
Rock's sense of pacing is also good, as jokes fly fast and furious, catering to short attention spans without stooping to irritating MTV effects. The few jokes that do need pauses are given them, and only one major running bit is notably overplayed -- the opponent's catchphrase "God bless America . . . and nowhere else!" repeated about four times too many. Best of all, Rock seems to sense when the movie is flagging narratively, as Mays gets bogged down in a romance, so he brings in Bernie Mac as a third-act weapon to liven things up. Whether punching people in the face for no reason or offering assertively preposterous comebacks to irritating newsmen, Mac, as Mays's brother and running mate, steals the show from Rock, only to have Rock make a valiant comeback and very nearly regain it.