Head Of State

2003, Movie, PG-13, 95 mins


Toothless satire punctuated by the occasional biting gag, in which an unknown black alderman is cynically tapped to run a doomed presidential race against a heavily favored incumbent. The model for all such inspirational political comedies about naive idealists and their rude awakenings is Frank Capra's MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939), but in the vulgar world of 21st-century influence peddling, sacred cows need much sharper skewering than they get here. Mays Gilliam (Rock) represents Washington, D.C.'s poor and overwhelmingly black ninth ward, where his quixotic attempts to serve his constituents earn him only ridicule. In short order he's dumped by his mercenary fiancée (the abrasive Robin Givens), loses his car to repo men and gets locked out of his shabby storefront office. But the powers that be have noticed Mays: Party bigwigs (presumably Democratic) need someone to finish out the campaign after their candidates are killed in a freak accident. Defeat is a forgone conclusion — the opposition is Vice President Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy), a good old boy who's both a war hero and Sharon Stone's cousin — and no career politician wants the gig. So scheming Senator Arnot (James Rebhorn) concocts a brilliant plan: Make Mays the first-ever African-American presidential candidate and capitalize on the liberal good will in the next election, while Mays himself languishes in the circle of hell reserved for footnotes to history. Mays starts moving up in the polls when he abandons the bland program concocted by his handlers (Dylan Baker, Lynn Whitfield) and starts speaking from the heart, turning "That ain't right" into a crowd-pleasing mantra of grassroots discontent. With his plainspoken bail-bondsman brother (Bernie Mac) as his running mate, Mays suddenly looks less like a sacrificial lamb and more like a potential winner, which sends the political establishment into a panic. Sadly, this limp comedy is never as nasty as it ought to be. Most of the laughs are pure schtick, like the spectacle of middle-aged rich people getting jiggy to Nelly's raunchy "Hot In Herre"; the political barbs never get sharper than the sight gag involving white suburbanites stampeding to the polls when they hear Mays is winning. The spectacle of Rock himself — so scathingly irreverent in his take-no-prisoners stand-up routines — thoroughly defanged is disheartening. What's worse is that he did it to himself — when you're co-writer, co-producer, director and star, there's not much opportunity for finger-pointing when things go wrong. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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