That is to say that Rock is most at home when his character, Mays Gilliam, is on the stump, rasping out his who-are-we-kidding take on society's sorry state. But when the script, which Rock co-wrote, calls for him to convince you that he's an actual character, forget about it.
Robin Givens plays Mays' girlfriend, who dumps him when he's lowly but wants him back when he's a presidential contender. Givens screams a lot more than Rock does, and she's not funny either. Her role has been conceived to have two notes, aggressive and shrill, adjectives that rarely translate to rousing comedy, especially when the director insists on thrusting the camera millimeters from her nose.
The director is Rock, who also produced. The movie is technically rough, like he's not sure where to put the camera. When he gives us a floor-level view of the characters, are we supposed to imagine how a cat would see the action?
More to the point, "Head of State" lacks zip, both in terms of its execution and conception. Mays is recruited to make his 2004 presidential bid when the party, presumably the Democrats, loses its candidate to a plane crash. The stuffy white party leader, played by James Rebhorn, figures Mays can demonstrate the party's commitment to minorities in 2004 so that it can be rewarded in the 2008 race. What he doesn't count on - and what we thoroughly expect - is that when Mays starts digressing from the party-approved script in order to address Americans' real problems, he gathers a following.
Yet what Mays is saying doesn't particularly stray from the typical populist (or stand-up comedian) platform: People shouldn't have to work two jobs to be broke. People shouldn't risk being shot just for living in their neighborhoods. Liquor companies, particularly those owned by African-Americans, shouldn't cater to kids.
The movie preaches staying true to your ideals rather than playing to the crowd, but like an actual politician, Rock has watered down his material for broader consumption. He says nothing here to make anyone uncomfortable, which is not the case with his live act. He's certainly not rattling cages and taking names like, say, Michael Moore. The racial humor amounts to variations on the not-so-new idea that America wouldn't elect a black president because he's black, and the biggest, easiest laughs come when he shows white socialites line-dancing to a hip-hop beat.
At the same time, Rock seems to be working out some personal themes. As in his previous writing/starring effort, the feeble "Down to Earth," Rock has envisioned himself as a savior-type around which everything revolves. He must beware of those who love him just for his fame (Givens) and find the rare person (Tamala Jones as the sought-after, earthy girlfriend) who can appreciate him for who he really is.
But Rock lacks the on-screen stature to pull off this larger-than-life act. It's telling that he fades whenever he shares the screen with Bernie Mac, who plays Mays' brother and running mate, Mitch.
Mac, in his too-few scenes, demonstrates the difference between a movie actor and a pretender. He's got a presence that's undeniable, drawing you into his blazing eyes and dominating the screen with his hulking build. Mitch is so intense and straight-faced, even when wearing garishly colored suits, that he's funny. You wish he were the candidate.
1 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Head of State"
Directed by Chris Rock; screenplay by Ali LeRoi, Rock; photographed by Donald E. Thorin; edited by Stephen A. Rotter; production design by Steven Jordan; produced by Michael Rotenberg, LeRoi, Rock. A DreamWorks Pictures release; opens Friday, March 28. Running time: 2:00. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language, some sexuality and drug references).
Mays Gilliam - Chris Rock
Mitch Gilliam - Bernie Mac
Kim - Robin Givens
Lisa Clark - Tamala Jones Senator Bill Arnot - James Rebhorn
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.