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Poor pundit

'Head of State' squanders comic potential in politics

Chris Rock has proved himself to be one of the shining lights of stand-up comedy, with a lightning-quick mind for social satire and a devastating gift for words. But his film career has so far been, to be kind, disappointing.

Oh, why be kind? Rock has been involved with some really lousy movies, writing, producing and starring in the limp comedies 'CB4' and 'Down to Earth' (in which he tried to fill Warren Beatty's shoes from 'Heaven Can Wait') and recently appearing in the horrible 'Bad Company' opposite Anthony Hopkins.

Apparently Rock figured it was time he jumped behind the camera, so this time he's also serving as director. The film is 'Head of State' and, while it's not nearly as bad as Rock's previous films, it is another disappointment Ñ mainly because of all the comic possibilities that Rock has squandered.

Rapper Nate Dogg gets the party started, acting as a Greek chorus and introducing us to Mays Gilliam (Rock), a well-liked alderman from a rough Washington, D.C., neighborhood. When Mays saves an elderly woman who has wandered back into her condemned building to get her cat, he comes to the attention of the Democratic party chairman (James Rebhorn).

The Dems are looking for a replacement presidential candidate, but they want someone who's sure not to win. It seems that the chairman plans to run for prez his own self next time around, and running a patsy this term against the Republican vice president (Nick Searcy) somehow means he'll have a shot in 2008. That's the movie's logic, anyway.

All this sets the stage for scathing political satire that just never comes. There's some clever parodies of negative campaign ads ('Mays Gilliam didn't attend the anticancer rally. Is he in favor of cancer? Mays Gilliam Ñ he's for cancer'), and Rock makes a few good points about how well the public might respond to a candidate who actually tells the truth rather than mouthing platitudes. But mostly it's just softball comedy that offers laughs but no real thought.

The plot goes precisely where you expect it to go: Mays starts out playing it straight, reciting the lines given to him by his campaign staff (Lynn Whitfield and Dylan Baker) but Ñ wouldn't you know it? Ñ he soon figures out that he's better off speaking his own mind. And naturally, since Mays is black, that inexorably leads to P. Diddy-style rock video commercials and campaign stops to the pimps and hookers at the Players Ball.

The saving grace of the film is Bernie Mac as Mays' flashy bail bondsman brother. Showing up just in time to save a flaccid second act, Mac is all smooth moves and dangerous darkness, and he's absolutely hilarious. Whether slapping down bystanders begging charitable contributions or playing word games with television interviewers, Mac provides the teeth missing from Rock's performance as Mr. Nice Guy.

Add a pointless love interest to the mix and 'Head of State' adds up to one big missed opportunity. Considering the savage tack that Rock has taken in the political arena in his standup, it's especially disheartening that he plays it so safe in his first directorial effort. It makes sense that he'd want to avoid ruffling too many feathers at this stage of his career Ñ but if that's the case, he shouldn't have chosen politics as his subject matter.