Well, it’s no Pootie Tang — but then, what is?
Actually, Chris Rock’s directorial debut does bear certain common traits with his earlier producing effort — namely, an amazingly cheap aura, a strange notion of the film’s lead as a role model for children and the injection of gags that play like they crawled out from under a Rock TV skit. It’s that last quality that really torpedoes Rock’s efforts with Head of State.
Rock is apparently so entrenched in a TV-skit mindset that whenever he feels his material sagging — and in Head of State, it sags worse than Moms Mabley, and way too often — he tosses in a woefully predictable gag that might pass muster on the small screen, but fails miserably on the big one, not in the least because you ought to get something more for your seven bucks than what you get for free on TV.
And when Rock doesn’t feel that’s enough, he mystifyingly defaults to having characters punch the crap out of each other for no apparent reason. There’s some quirky amusement value in having vice-presidential candidate Mitch Gilliam (Bernie Mac, who’s in the film a good deal less than his billing suggests) get off a train and “pimp slap” everyone who greets him. But such truck as Mitch and Mays (Rock) beating each other up just eats up screen time to no discernible end. What’s most perplexing about all of this is that Rock is not stupid and he’s not unfunny, but for some reason, he keeps making lame or at best tepid movies that showcase his talents far less than do his turns in Kevin Smith’s Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that Head of State is headed for trouble. The opening sequence is less concerned with being funny than with setting Rock’s character up as a sympathetic good-guy — like a more realistic (yes) Pootie Tang. Some of this is mildly amusing (like Rock waxing sentimental over the “old” neighborhood: “Right over there is where my bicycle was stolen”), but it doesn’t add up to the “laff riot” Head of State aims to be; in fact, this funny stuff belongs in a different film. And that’s what’s wrong with the whole movie: It can’t make up its mind what it wants to be.
Rock obviously never decided whether he was making a light comedy, a political satire or a broad farce, so he simply threw all those elements into one God-awful mess of a movie and barged ahead with an enthusiasm that’s as wrongheaded as it is mystifying.
The seeds of a really sharp political satire are here, but they never really take root (in fact, they don’t even germinate). Rock as a candidate for president is a terrific premise, and there are moments when he at least gets near the movie Head of State could have been. But in the end, even the good stuff gets buried beneath the safe script, which too often goes for the lamely predictable or the too obvious. Take the scene where Mays turns on old rich white folks by getting them to dance to hip-hop. Even were this fresh and funny (it isn’t, and the trailer has already killed it by showing too much of it), the scene is integrated so poorly into the movie that it’s more jarring than funny. It’s the kind of fantastic leap that needs to be established as an approach early on, not 20 minutes into the movie.
Or consider the slogan of Mays’ opponent: “God bless America and nobody else.” Left as a background bit, it’s not bad; it’s even fairly pithy and timely. But the film milks it to death, using it to set up the final thrust against Mays’ political rival — and to give Mays his big “now is where you cheer” Pacino-esque moment. Sure, you might well believe that certain politicos hold that viewpoint, but it’s hard to imagine anyone so obviously setting himself up by using it as a slogan.
Yes, there are occasional funny bits and flights of fancy that work — the climactic gag with Rock’s “assassination double” is a classic of throwaway comedy — but they’re too few and far apart to make Head of State worth your while.