Both movies rely heavily on the star power of the leading male, but make sure to feature a young, attractive woman. Both expect the viewers to accept an unlikely plot line long enough to be charmed by the skill and ingenuity of the main character. Both develop the main character as someone not ordinarily thought to be important, but who enjoys tremendous success, and we root for them both because they represent the ‘anti-hero,’ the one who plays against type.
In ‘Head Of State,’ Chris Rock plays a lowly town alderman, Mays Gilliam, who is caught on the national news doing a dramatic rescue, just because he happened to be nearby at the time. This catches the attention of the Democratic Party’s kingmakers, who have a problem. Their presidential candidate and his running mate have died in a plane crash. They need to find a sacrificial lamb quickly, because the opposition is the well-known Republican who has been the vice president for eight years. Nobody wants to run against him. And so they choose Gilliam, the unknown, the ‘man of the people,’ and try to garner some goodwill for the next election.
Meanwhile, our hapless alderman is starting to feel like Job: he loses his job, his fiancée leaves him, his car is repossessed, his bicycle gets run over and he’s caught in the rain. He’s got nothing, except a sudden interest in a pretty young woman (Tamala Jones) who works as a cashier.
Then suddenly he’s running for president. So he takes off in a bus and talks to the people: about how they are working all day and still can’t afford to live, about how their children are kept by strangers; about how decent, hard-working people don’t have a voice. This kind of campaign naturally builds momentum, but Rock, the comedian, doesn’t really shine until the end. And we wonder all along if his version of America isn’t more authentic than what we most often see from our real politicians. We root for him despite the fact that he’s a nobody, or perhaps even because of it.
We do the same for Nick Nolte in ‘The Good Thief.’ True, he mumbles through his lines even more than usual, and relies on that tired old world-weary demeanor to somehow carry him through rescuing a damsel in distress, self-imposed detox, a complicated heist and an incredibly lucky gambling spree in Monte Carlo. And the waif around his arm (Nutsa Kukhiani) is of course much too young for him, but she’s his reclamation project, and he hers.
See Nolte outsmart the lawman who is constantly pursuing him. See him outwit the shady dealer in stolen paintings (Ralph Fiennes). See him outmaneuver everyone, including his own gang of thieves, all the while smoking incessantly. He even finds time for a little lecture on ‘the good thief,’ the one who died next to Jesus on the cross, the one to whom Jesus said, ‘This day you will be with me in Paradise.’ Nolte’s character says he has always taken comfort in that incident. So have a lot of the rest of us. But that doesn’t mean we have to practice thievery in order to qualify.
Neither ‘Head Of State’ nor ‘The Good Thief’ is fine filmmaking. One intersperses some genuinely comedic moments around some rather bland socioeconomic blandishments. The other intersperses some dark, seamy scenes of drug use and nudity around some rather undistinguished and sometimes undecipherable dialogue. However, they both may be right to call undue attention to the young female co-stars. They may very well use these ordinary movies into launching platforms for their promising careers.