Head of State

The trouble with the films prior to “Head of State” that have had Chris Rock in major roles is that they have not used the comedian’s considerable talents properly.

In his stage shows, his young face serves as a stark contrast to his intelligent, caustic humor; he is somehow both innocent and devious simultaneously. But in his films, he has generally been rendered one or the other, usually silly and comedically impotent.

In “Head of State,” Chris Rock has finally found a leading role that suits him. He plays a low-level city alderman called upon to run for president by schemers who intend for him to lose. Unaware of the ploy, he is innocent. But as co-writer and director of the film, Rock also gets to be devious — and as his character catches on, his knack for biting social satire is put to good use.

Rock is Mays Gilliam, the busiest alderman (what does an alderman do, anyway?) in Washington, D.C., in a neighborhood so bad, “you can get shot while you’re getting shot.” He’s a true man of the people with mild political aspirations, but generally happy to help his neighbors.

In the midst of the 2004 presidential election, one party’s candidate — no political parties are ever named — and his running mate die in a plane crash. The party’s heir apparent, Sen. Arnot (James Rebhorn), knows he doesn’t stand a chance of winning if he runs, because the opponent is the current two-term vice president. But in 2008, he’ll have a chance. So all he has to do now is put in a filler candidate for this election — someone who definitely won’t win.

With Mays having recently been a local hero for saving a woman and her cat from a demolished building, ____ sees his picture on TV and decides this is the low-level politician they need to be their losing candidate.

It will not surprise you to learn that, once the campaign begins, Mays starts to gain popularity, due to his no-nonsense, down-to-earth style. The story is old, and it makes little sense — why shouldn’t Arnot run for president himself, even though he knows he won’t win? — but it gives Rock and co-writer Ali LeRoi opportunity to skewer the election process and politics in general. The humor does not succeed in every instance, but it connects more often than it misses.

Rock is likable, as always, and while his directorial vision may be scattershot at times, at least it’s something different. He also had the good sense to cast Bernie Mac as his brother and running mate. Any time Bernie Mac is on the screen, the film becomes twice as funny as it was before. I would pay money to re-view the scene where he slaps a series of lobbyists, and his altercations with TV journalists are priceless.

There are several running jokes, including Mays’ opponent’s motto of “God bless America and no one else” and Mays’ immediate access, at all times, to security personnel. They bespeak a certain jollity that is infectious: For all its cutting commentary on American politics, this is a very sunny, idealistic film. It is in the spirit of all the other films that have suggested one man can buck the system and make a difference, and I suspect that’s a notion that will never go out of style.

B (1 hr., 30 min.; PG-13, a lot of profanity, some sexual dialogue.)