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— Woody Allen, Curse of the Jade Scorpion

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Head of State is unsatisfying. The premise — anonymous schmuck runs for president — is as idealistic as Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but far from being empowering, the movie seems to say “this can’t work except in a screwball comedy.”

Rock the Vote

Chris Rock the vote
Chris Rock the vote

Chris Rock plays Mays Gilliam, a sacrificial lamb chosen to run for president. His party knows it can’t win the current election, and when their candidate dies in a freak accident, they offer up Gilliam rather than taint its front-runner for the next election with a loss in this one.

I really would like to see a candidate like Chris Rock shake things up. I’d love to see someone run for office who swore, gladly admitted to smoking the chronic, and fought for the little guy.

But Head of State doesn’t make that seem possible. In fact, the movie makes it seem even more farfetched by caricaturing everyone. It’s the filmmakers’ way of saying “we’re just kidding, folks; don’t worry, it was all a joke.”

Politics in America is a Joke

Head of State isn’t very good, but there are some funny spots. The best of these feature Rock or Bernie Mac (playing Mays’ brother) doing their own thing. The scenes that feel improvised, that feel like comedy monologues, are the ones that draw the most laughs.

The situation offers a few jokes too. Although there are some race-card jokes, these aren’t nearly as funny as the ones made at the expense of politicians. One political ad accuses a candidate of being pro-cancer. The big presidential debate devolves into “did not/did too” and “I know you are but what am I?”

Hearts and Heads

Chris Rock’s heart is in the right place. His material may sound political (in Head of State and elsewhere), but it’s not very deep or hard-hitting. He’s shocked and awed by the poverty and violence that exists at the bottom end of America. One gets the sense that these issues really are important to Rock. That’s partly this movie’s appeal. It’s nice and its populist. Everyone dances, and even the rich white people know how to do the electric slide. It says “politics can be fun.”

Unfortunately, real politics isn’t that simple or idealistic. It’s not enough to point at the problems. Real solutions are real hard, and Chris Rock and Head of State don’t have anything to offer except this sugar pill.

Rock is to be commended for trying to do the right thing, not just in this movie, but also in Down to Earth, and in his stand-up routines (part of which Michael Moore’s featured in Bowling for Columbine).

Unfortunately, commendation is not the same as recommendation.