Just what we all need right now, Chris Rock's Head of State delivers a roistering good time. This thrown-together farce looks like it cost a fraction of most other DreamWorks productions, but who cares? In its unassuming way, it's a most satisfying political satire--miles above, say, The Distinguished Gentleman or Bob Roberts. As fully populist as anything by Frank Capra, it happily avoids the drippy sentiment and sometimes infuriating cutesiness of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe or State of the Union. The very New York radio-promotion audience (WBLS) with whom I saw it raised the theatre roof with their laughter-filled appreciation.

Mays Gilliam (Rock), a luckless D.C. alderman, is thrown into the presidential race by a cadre of unscrupulous Beltway insiders (Lynn Whitfield, James Rebhorn). However, when Mays, a staunch supporter of the common man with a built-in bullshit detector, learns that their real intention is for him to lose, he determines to fully triumph over his weasel opponent, Dubya-like Vice President Brian Lewis (Nick Searcy). He picks his older brother (Bernie Mac, who has the self-same, almost scary yet bracing, knock-some-sense-into-your-head quality of Pearl Bailey) as running mate. Soon these two have the entire country agog and delighted over the home truths and promise of pure fun they deliver.

Rock's first-time direction may veer on the crude side, but he sure knows his stuff when it comes to comic timing and keeping things moving at a breakneck pace to the next surefire laugh (while blithely skimming over a few clunkers along the way). From the first joke, a credits sequence featuring the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Hillary Clinton, he maintains a loose yet focused control on his uproarious material. He inserts fantasy moments (Mays' first vision of himself as president naturally involves his own assassination), some hysterical yet harmless violence, and comic asides, like a squad of super-whores trained for the candidate's delectation, which add their own farcical tingle.

Rock has filled the cast with game actors, having the time of their lives. Whitfield's intensity suits her ruthless Condoleeza Rice role. Dylan Baker (terrific in a recent New York stage revival of What the Butler Saw), as Mays' aide, also stays right in there, providing a sturdy, appealing base for jokes to bounce off. Tamala Jones has a sweet directness as Mays' honey, and sparks the funniest sequence, in which she leads a fundraiser full of old, white socialites in a very funky slide dance. Robin Givens proves herself the ultimate trouper as Mays' bitchy ex-girlfriend, who keeps coming back into his life and is repeatedly humiliated whenever he cries, "Security!" As for Rock's performance, well, it's nothing short of amazing that, as predictably funny as he is with his put-upon, staccato moments of rage and anguish, he can also bring a sizeable lump to the throat by virtue of the conviction of his beliefs and the impassioned way he voices them. (Looking at the famed Lincoln Memorial statue, he comments, "Some nigger got his freedom just to be able to make minimum wage by washing Lincoln's balls!")

--David Noh