Sometimes Rock's nearly Capra-esque

March 28, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Can Frank Capra be saved from his copycats?

First Adam Sandler remade Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and now Chris Rock does Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with a hero from a Washington neighborhood so tough, he quips, "You can get shot while you're getting shot."

Rock's latter-day Mr. Smith is a hands-on alderman named Mays Gilliam. He attracts media attention by rescuing an old woman and her cat from a very-soon-to-be-demolished house just when two campaign planes crash into each other and eliminate a presidential ticket. The dead men's party leader (James Rebhorn), unwilling to take on a popular opponent (Nick Searcy), sees Mays as the answer to his dreams: a black candidate who can secure the allegiance of African-American voters while going down in flames at the polls, clearing the way for his own candidacy four years hence. But when Gilliam throws his party's script aside and starts walking the walk on the campaign trail, he becomes a threat to his opponent and to all political regulars.

As Capra and Jimmy Stewart demonstrated, the spectacle of an innocent outflanking his would-be manipulators can be rife with comedy-drama and a square, potent form of protest. (Capra's film scandalized Washingtonians back in 1939.) Although it's a lot more amiable than Sandler's Mr. Deeds and a lot more raucous than Capra's Mr. Smith, Rock's Head of State has such a thin, watered-down texture that even its knockabout farce evaporates before your eyes.

Rock, who co-wrote the film with Ali LeRoi as well as directing and starring in it, still gets off sporadic flurries of inventive and abrasive lines, like that crack about Gilliam's hood. And Rock does provide hints that his enormous talent as a stand-up could someday transfer to the big screen: At his best he moves beyond the modulated blurting of his wired-up declamatory comedy style into leading-man confidence and ease. His screenplay exploits every already-tired trope of new-millennial racial comedy, like upper-crust white folk getting down, boogie-ing and talking jive.

But Rock has built up such banks of goodwill with TV and movie audiences that they stick with him. They cheer him on when Gilliam keeps shutting down the ex-girlfriend who once dumped him (Robin Givens), brings romance into the life of a fresh beauty who works two menial jobs (Tamala Jones), and wins the loyalty of his cynical campaign manager (Dylan Baker) and adviser (Lynn Whitfield).

Whenever Rock wears out his welcome even with his core fans in the theater, Bernie Mac enters the picture to perk things up - too briefly - as Gilliam's hilariously blunt big brother Mitch, a bail bondsman from Chicago who signs on to Gilliam's ticket as vice president.

As political burlesque or out-and-out vaudeville, the movie is flimsy to the bone. Gilliam's program amounts to waving his hands at regular folks and conducting group yells for better pay, benefits and services. He's more like an opening act at a union fund-raiser than a plausible or kamikaze candidate. During his campaign breakthroughs he talks dirty on podiums, wears what the movie's costume designer calls "ghetto fabulous" fashions and turns campaign spots into rap videos. It's comedy-club populism.

Rock earned his street cred by following Richard Pryor into areas where others feared to tread. He was angry but he was also brave: in comic terms, an equal-opportunity attack dog. In Head of State, he may be verging on becoming a heart-warmer. It's funny when Gilliam's opponent takes as his signature farewell, "God bless America and no place else." It's sappy when Gilliam answers, "God bless America and every place else." Is he tailoring himself for a wider audience? In Head of State, as in his other movies, we're seeing only a small piece of Chris Rock.

Head of State

Starring Chris Rock and Bernie Mac

Directed by Chris Rock

Rated PG-13

Released by DreamWorks

Time 95 minutes

SUN SCORE * *

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