At first cowed by his handlers -- who don't tell him he was chosen expressly to lose -- Gilliam (Rock) buses through the farm belt, obediently reciting speeches more free of content than American jails are of white-collar criminals. Then Gilliam has a change of heart, rebels against his (unnamed) party, and starts saying what he really thinks. He assails the inequities in American life, raising a populist stink in the perfumed pigpen that is the modern campaign trail.
Rock, who also co-wrote and directed Head of State, is a bright guy who wanted to make a movie that entertained while delivering a message with a little fight to it. But while this Rocky-esque film snaps off some sardonic jabs at injustice and hypocrisy, it's an underdog fairy tale without the skills to go the distance.
It's not that Gilliam isn't likable: His first two scenes are spent promising to help an elderly man get to work and risking his neck for an old woman whose house has been condemned. And it's not for lack of something to say: The screenplay, by Rock and Ali LeRoi, has a common-man political consciousness that can be refreshing, with Gilliam unbound railing against schools with "old books and brand-new metal detectors" and on behalf of people who have to "work in a mall they can't afford to shop in." Talking DEA to his square opponent, he asks, "How can you make drug policy if you never smoked the chronic?"
But in the person of that opponent you can see Head of State -- like Chevy Chase doing Gerald Ford on the old Saturday Night Live -- stumbling. Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy) is a sitting two-term Vice-President, an oily jingoist whose signature line is "God bless America -- and no place else!" (His crypto-racist campaign slogan, "It's your last chance!", maybe nods to LeRoi's hometown, Chicago, where in the early '80s a white Republican wielded the motto "Before it's too late" against Harold Washington, who went on to become that city's first black mayor.) Yet though veep Lewis is supposed to be the consummate pol, in the blink of an eye he turns into a sputtering ninny who during a nationally televised debate gets sucked into a game of "I know you are but what am I" with the taunting Gilliam. He has to, of course, in a film in which an entrenched power structure obligingly crumbles at the common touch.
That's just one way in which Head of State not only goes juvenile, but conveniently drop-kicks the forthrightness it preaches. Gilliam is a hipster with diamond studs in both ears; when he starts dressing like a hip-hop dude, we're supposed to understand he's being himself -- even though when we first met him he dressed like a vaguely preppy grad student. And Gilliam's bravely Jeffersonian proclamations about the virtues of amateur status for politicians notwithstanding, we're meant to believe that anyone who's against him is either a stuffed shirt or a racist, even though he doesn't have any experience vaguely qualifying him for the job. Unlike Warren Beatty's somewhat similar director/star turn Bulworth, Head of State lacks the savvy -- or the guts -- to propose any solutions to the problems it so loquaciously enumerates.
What's perhaps most problematic, though, is Rock's direction. He has his moments: When a cynical (white) politician says "the minorities will be happy" with Gilliam's candidacy, Rock cuts to a Benetton ad's-worth of vapidly beaming black, brown and yellow folk, hilariously showing us what the politician imagines. And Rock wisely gives free rein -- did he have a choice? -- to ball of fire Bernie Mac, who plays Gilliam's brother and running mate.
Still, the humor is more often sophomoric than satirical. And like a lot of first-time directors, Rock tries a little bit of everything, from curious shaky zooms to a musical narrator (Nate Dogg, a la Jonathan Richman in There's Something About Mary -- much funkier, but not nearly as funny). A scene in which suburbanites flood from their gleaming tract homes in a last-ditch effort to vote down Gilliam might be meant to parody the famous "ride of the Klan" scene in D.W. Griffith's infamous The Birth of a Nation. Now that would be funny -- except in Rock's hands it's a textureless single shot that ends with a desperate man looking right into the camera and screaming "Nooooo!" -- at least the third time in the film Rock resorts to that soggy trope.
More unfortunate still is the role of Kim (Robin Givens), Gilliam's insane ex-girlfriend who spends the whole movie trying to get back with him. Screeching and cackling, she's a caricature reeking of misogyny (compare Gilliam's model love interest, played as demurely independent by Tamala Jones). The odd thing is, Kim's also completely superfluous to the plot. If she's a candid glimpse at the minds of the filmmakers, she's an argument for a little reticence. * *