By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Heather Baysa
By Calum Marsh
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Simon Abrams
By Alan Scherstuhl
Don't worry about political diatribes in this film. Both candidates think poverty is bad, gun violence is bad, selling alcohol to children is bad -- anyone offended yet? The closest the film gets to an actual issue is a possible (and, if so, timely) reference to Bowling for Columbine, as Rock's character, Mays Gilliam, speculates that there might be a connection between school shootings and U.S. bombings overseas. That this turns out to be his biggest campaign blunder should ring true whether you agree with the thought or not.
Even during the obligatory climactic speech, the music rises and gets sentimental, but much of the dialogue is calculated to amuse rather than provoke. Unlike gentler, more unabashedly pro-Democrat presidential comedies such as Dave and The American President, Head of State always punctuates potentially sentimental moments with jokes.
But then again, this film is also clearly not set in the real world, so who's to say whether our two major parties even exist therein? Mays is a Washington, D.C., alderman who gets the call to run for president when one major party's presidential and vice presidential candidates are on planes that crash into each other -- an event dryly announced by a white-bread radio announcer, who then returns to the Jay-Z song "already in progress." Presidential campaigns in this reality have on-call blowjob interns who have to attend a special boot camp for political prostitutes (and this is before Mays takes his campaign to the Player's Ball).
Mays has been set up to lose from the beginning, with the party already figuring the election's a lost cause, so they might as well appeal to minorities and get their vote next time. But as in Putney Swope, an explicit influence on the Rock showcase Pootie Tang, the black man does better than expected, especially when he stops listening to advice and takes charge of things himself. Come to think of it, this could be a metaphor for Rock's career: Head of State sees him finally steering his own vehicle, and it's easily his funniest film to date.
Rock's influences as a director and co-writer (with Ali LeRoi) are sometimes blatant but perhaps not what you'd expect -- two jokes are cribbed directly from Pee-wee's Big Adventure, for instance. He's also picked up a healthy sense of absurdism, possibly from his occasional collaborations with comedian-auteur Louis C.K. (Pootie Tang). While his work's never as blatantly surreal as C.K.'s, there is a heightened sense of lunacy to the film, from the fake-out opening credits to the negative campaigning (ads refer to Mays as "pro-cancer") to the increasingly ridiculous dialogue.
Rock's sense of pacing is also good, as jokes fly fast and furious, catering to short attention spans without stooping to irritating MTV effects. The few jokes that do need pauses are given them. Best of all, Rock seems to sense when the movie is flagging narratively. As Mays gets bogged down in a romance, he brings in Bernie Mac as a third-act weapon to liven things up. Whether punching people in the face for no reason or offering assertively preposterous comebacks to irritating newsmen, Mac, as Mays' brother and running mate, steals the show from Rock only to have Rock make a valiant comeback and very nearly regain it.
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