Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Marx, Allen, Brooks. Writing-performing comedy auteurs. Is it me or has it been a while since Hollywood has welcomed a comedy auteur to get down to business? Steve Martin and Albert Brooks have made films in recent memory, but both work at least as often for hire as for themselves. Others do their thing, but succeed more as performer than writer (the unsinkable Adam Sandler comes to mind). The latest entrant in the comedy auteur sweepstakes is Chris Rock, whose celebrated writing and performing prowess in the field of stand-up comedy compares unfavorably to the flaccid political comedy Head of State.
In Head of State, Rock plays Mays Gilliam, a wise-guy D.C. alderman who wants the same things any Capra hero ever wanted: social justice, personal pride, and a little romance. When a campaign fatality leaves the Democrats in need of political cannon fodder (in a purportedly no-win situation, James Rebhorn's opportunistic senator hopes to lay the groundwork for a future victory), Gilliam steps up to fill the bill. When his straight talk gains support, Gilliam threatens to topple the autocratic bureaucracy of record (Gilliam's Republican opponent, in timely fits of pique, blurts the motto "God bless America, and no one else!"). The story lurches onward, with each photo "op" providing a scene "op."
Rock does himself no favors by casting the more seasoned and consistently hilarious Bernie Mac (the TV maestro of The Bernie Mac Show) as his brother and running mate. First-time director Rock's on-screen candidacy seems to reflect his bid to control his own creative destiny and the future of screen mirth. But Rock remains so clearly beholden to the movie-making machinery that he fails to give the scenes and gags the subtle, loving attention to detail they so evidently require.
Instead of "trying anything," Rock "tries" the safe and the proven. The film's best touch is Nate Dogg as a hip-hop/R&B narrator, but the Farrellys memorably pulled the same trick with Jonathan Richman in There's Something About Mary. Rock also occasionally spins into fantasy, like an ephemeral running gag about government "super-whores," but the cutaway gag of their training camp only serves to remind us that the Zucker brothers filled whole movies with such absurdist gags, while this one must lean heavily on Mac's attitudinal toss-offs for laughs--had Mac been the star, we might have had a movie here. A fleeting appearance by Saturday Night Live funny-man Tracy Morgan also suggests missed opportunity.
As it is, Head of State is a wan inversion of Bulworth, with the lovably straight-talking candidate transgressing race boundaries to win the day. Here again are the same lazy jokes about white people turning black--a snooty party morphs into Soul Train and grannies sling slang--which power the unaccountable hit Bringing Down the House. Here again is the stereotype--and casual endorsement--of familial African-American whuppings, most notably in frequent on-screen slap and punch-fests involving Rock, his harridan ex (a teeth-gritting Robin Givens), and Mac. As if by way of apology, Rock gives himself one serious-minded monologue addressing the burden of symbolically representing his race.
Rock's erratic, slack screen persona has fallen on fallow ground as of yet, unlike the calibrated exaggeration of the geniuses of yore. Those comic authors knew how to filigree their movement and syntax to dizzying, exhilharating absurdities in a "reel" context as well as in a "real" one. As for the "state" of comedy auteurs, producers would do well to take more chances in cultivating new talent. Perhaps a female auteur is the next logical step--certainly overdue--to restore energy and purpose (and laughs) to screen humor. Rock shouldn't have to bear the burden of screen comedy with his current film, but it is emblematic of our national failure to just make a funny movie.