Hail to the chief

If only all of our elected officials were as quick-witted as Chris Rock

by Niels Strandskov

CENTURY CITY, Calif. -“What does America’s Funnyman do when he’s at home?” asked a peculiarly fawning reporter of Chris Rock at a recent press conference in this Los Angeles suburb. Unfazed by the questioner’s bizarre mannerisms (every question she asked was preceded by a similarly obsequious phrase), Rock answered that he spent most of his off hours playing with his new child. Asked by a slightly less scary journalist whether he’d learned anything about directing from working with Kevin Smith on “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” Rock cleverly averred that he had indeed walked around the set of his new film “Head of State” (which he both stars in and directed) calling people “cracker” all day. Apparently it takes more than just a few crazy interview questions to unnerve America’s Funnyman.

The press conference, which was part of Rock’s promotional responsibilities for “Head of State,” was attended by approximately 25 journalists from college newspapers and five professional journalists. As with the “Old School” press conferences that immediately preceded it, the opportunity to speak with a major star seemed to bamboozle most of the reporters in attendance. Several reporters asked some version of the question “how does this film relate to contemporary issues in U.S. politics?” Rock seemed relatively unprepared for this line of questioning. To the question “do you think this film will affect the way people think about black candidates?” Rock replied that he hoped no one would take the film that seriously, for instance by comparing his character to oft-mentioned presidential possibility Secretary of State Colin Powell. In fact, Rock reiterated several times that he hoped audiences would not find a political message of any sort in the film, and rather see it as a light-hearted bit of whimsical comedy.

Based on the trailer for “Head of State” and Internet commentaries on test screenings of the film, Rock has little enough reason to worry. “Head of State” is a classic fish-out-of-water scenario, with Rock playing poor-but-honest Alderman Mays Gilliam, tapped by the Democratic Party to replace their presidential nominee who was killed in a plane crash. (But will it play in Onamia? Perhaps Dreamworks SKG feels that those of us in fly-over land have short memories for political tragedy.) Predictably, Gilliam’s streetwise campaign style clashes with the traditional notions of his staid political handlers. Hijinks ensue.

During the press conference, Rock allowed that he had written the role of Gilliam’s brother and running mate Mitch Gilliam specifically for comedian Bernie Mac, with whom he had long hoped to work on a big project. If Rock plays the fish-out-of-water, then Mac’s character is a veritable land shark. His character, imbued with Mac’s trademark bombast, threatens to steal the film from Rock’s toned-down persona.

Chris Rock makes for a funny interview subject. Even when the questions that came at him seemed less-than-useful, he answered them with aplomb. Of course, his stand-up routines are also legendary. It remains for audiences to judge however, whether his newest turn, as both director and lead in a feature film, will add to his well-deserved prestige or not.

“Head of State” opens March 28 at area theaters.