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'Head of State'

Chris Rock's up to his old tricks

Friday, March 28, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

So the Democrats and their backers want to find some liberal talk-show hosts to counteract the solid wall of conservative voices on the radio dial. Maybe they should see Chris Rock's movie "Head of State" for an idea what it might sound like.

'Head Of State'

RATING: PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug references.

STARRING: Chris Rock, Bernie Mac, Dylan Baker, Lynn Whitfield.

DIRECTOR: Chris Rock.

WEB SITE: www.headofstate.com


Local movie showtimes


I'm not referring to the part where Rock, as alderman-turned-presidential-candidate Mays Gilliam, turns his first big-money fund-raiser into a hip-hop dance party featuring old, rich white people busting moves. I'm not thinking about the way he gives his campaign the sensibility of a rap video, complete with the slogan MG2K4 and a theme song by Nate Dogg.

Let's skip to the part where Gilliam faces an audience of working people in Chicago, where he is supposed to give a speech carefully prepared by his handlers, Martin Geller (Dylan Baker) and Debra Lassiter (Lynn Whitfield).

The candidate takes one look at the crowd, turns off the teleprompter and starts ad-libbing about issues sure to get these folks on their feet: the cost of child care, corporate raids on pension funds, bad schools. By the time it's over, he has them chanting his catch phrase: "That ain't right!"

Toward the end of the movie, Gilliam squares off in a debate against his rival, Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy), who endlessly reminds us that he has been vice president for the past eight years, is a war hero and the cousin of Sharon Stone. His favorite sign-off: "God bless America, and no one else." You can imagine how Gilliam punctures this fatuous balloon.

If you've seen Rock's stand-up act or his HBO show, you know the fiery outspokenness of his views on social and political issues. This guy might be able to give the Bill O'Reillys and Gordon Liddys of the world a run for their money.

But if you've seen Rock's other movies, you know he keeps going back to the same old tricks, often killing the laughter in the process.

In this movie, as in the thriller "Bad Company" and the comedy "Down to Earth," he plays a man of humble means who finds himself suddenly having to learn how the other half lives -- as an international spy, as a millionaire businessman and now a presidential candidate. That lets him fall back on sight gags featuring white people trying to act black or poor people playing with rich people's toys.

It is also supposed to soften him into a more sympathetic character, especially when he gets to reject obnoxious gold-diggers like his previous girlfriend (Robin Givens -- is she aware she's parodying herself?) for sensible, dewy-eyed beauties like convenience-store clerk Lisa (Tamala Jones).

But we don't want him to be soft. We want him to be funny. We want him to scorch the fat cats. We want him to be Bernie Mac, who plays Gilliam's bail-bondsman brother and vice-presidential candidate, a man who takes guff from no one. His character actually does appear on a series of talk shows in which he either bullies or baffles the host. That's the spirit!

Rock chose "Head of State" for his debut as director, but the film suffers from his inexperience. The intermittent laughs in the film co-exist with long dead spots. He stages the physical humor as the broadest of slapstick, which undercuts the political satire.

In case you were wondering, Gilliam gets the presidential gig because the party's candidate dies in a plane crash and his opponent, the vice president, has such a prohibitive lead that no one wants to run, knowing it's a lost cause. The conniving party boss (James Rebhorn) figures he can attract minorities by running a black man and position himself for a run in 2008.

Obviously, the movie is pure fantasy -- someone this obscure would be nominated for vice president, where obscurity counts for something. Or he could be a liberal talk-radio host -- same thing.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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