I've always liked Chris Rock, whether it be the comedian's stand-up work or his acting roles. His stand-up work has always been bright and entertaining, as it tackles social issues in a way that, while raunchy at times, is still smart and right-on. It's a credit to Rock that "Head of State" (his directorial debut), while poorly filmed and awkward at times, still managed to be amusing enough to carry my interest.
"Head of State" stars Rock as Mays Gilliam, a DC alderman responsible for one of the poorest areas of the city. When the frontrunners in the current presidential race are killed when their planes crash into each other, Mays is picked to run for office. They think he can't win, but the party thinks they'll look good for him trying. For a while, he goes along with the lines from his aides (Dylan Baker, Lynn Whitfield), but when his brother Mitch (Bernic Mac) enters the picture, he sets him straight. Soon enough, Mays is speaking his mind, running with the motto "That Ain't Right!" (his opposition is running with, "God Bless America, and no place else!"). When nobody will run with him, Mays takes Mitch.
There are funny bits here large and small, but they come through inconsistently. I liked the Jay-Z song playing on the radio throughout many scenes (complete with "and now back to the Jay-Z song, already in progress"). The movie's opening credits go through a list of politicans, before telling us that "...and none of these people are in the movie." Some of the film's various campaign ads are silly and amusing. The joke of how Mays turns his campaign into something resembling a rap tour (his bus reads "MG2K4") worked, too.
Oh, but the problems. As sharp and funny as the couple of speechs that Mayes has about the problems of the country are, I don't think I ever heard the character come up with something inventive or inspired as to how to handle any of those problems (well, that's not entirely true - in the last speech of the film Mayes urges parents to "knock your kids out, it's good for them!"). For some reason, the film has been turned in with a PG-13. For anyone who's ever seen Rock's stand-up act, you'll know that the man needs to curse. It's just part of his timing. Taking out all but a couple of four-letter words makes the film lack edge and feel somewhat bland.
Bernie Mac is underused in the film, too. Although his bit of slapping nearly everyone he meets started to get tiresome, there's a stretch with him answering questions on political talk shows later in the film that's utterly hilarious. The romantic subplot with Tamala Jones is rather tacked on, and some of the other bits in the film (the government has trained a group of "super whores" to take care of the politican's needs, as to avoid sex scandals; he calls "security" every time his stalking ex-girlfriend (Robin Givens) appears) just don't work.
The look of the film is just about the most serious issue, though. While reportedly not cheap, the film still looks that way - under-lit, blandly filmed and edited with little rhythm (the movie sometimes seems less edited than "thrown together"), the movie has less of a visual style than most sitcoms do. Many of the film's crowd scenes (aside from one where people in suburbia run from their homes screaming) look obviously under-populated. The middle of the film, even at 95 minutes, starts to drag a bit.
Still, the movie presents itself with enough energy and enough awareness of what it is and what it isn't that it makes for decent viewing, even if those who are fans of the actor will be constantly reminded how the film could have been something considerably better. Those interested should check it out as a rental.