Top Five (2014)
Dir: Chris Rock
Chris Rock might as well be talking directly to his critics when the line “sometimes a movie is just a movie” is said during Top Five. As one of the funniest and most incendiary standup comics in America, there’s always been an enormous amount of pressure on Rock to succeed in the film world. After some initial success in serious (New Jack City) and comedic (CB4) roles, the results have been mixed at best. It seems that for every offbeat but commendable choice (Pootie Tang, Death at a Funeral), there’s several stinkers waiting in the wings (the execrable but highly lucrative Grown Ups series, or anything else Adam Sandler ropes Rock into). And despite the qualified successes of Rock’s previous two directorial efforts (2003’s Head of State & 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife), it seems like his true voice has never made it’s way onto celluloid (or its digital equivalent). What a relief then that the third time’s the charm with the insightful and hilarious Top Five, a showbiz satire told from a seasoned veteran’s point of view.
In addition to writing and directing, Rock stars in the semi-autobiographical Top Five as Andre Allen, a middle-aged comedian and movie star looking to make the tough transition from comedy to drama. Impending nuptials to his reality-star fiancé Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) bring unwanted complications, especially as Allen tries to focus on the release of his new, super-serious Haitian drama. To promote the film he reluctantly agrees to an interview with New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), kicking off a long and eventful day in NYC.
And so begins a meandering back-and-forth between Allen and Brown as interviewee and interviewer; one that begins with a prickly antagonism but of course morphs into something else. The structure and execution recall Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy while the setting and banter bring to mind vintage (read: good) Woody Allen. Rock takes a while to find a workable rhythm, as he’s never been the most subtle actor and the dialogue comes off as a bit forced initially. However, around the time Allen is recounting a story of debauchery in Houston – including a cringe-inducing four-way with two ladies of the night and slithery promoter Jazzy Dee (Cedric the Entertainer) – the movie had dialled in and I found myself happily riding its wavelength.
Providing enormous backup is a who’s who of American comedy (and hip hop) in an unending series of cameos that steadily escalate, culminating in a delightfully odd reworking of one of Charlie Chaplin’s best known tunes. There’s Whoopie Goldberg, Adam Sandler & Jerry Seinfeld as themselves at a raucous bachelor party (yes, Jerry makes it rain), while up-and-coming SNLers Michael Che and Leslie Jones join SNL vet Tracy Morgan as Allen’s ball-busting family and friends. Numerous other big names (like omnipresent Kevin Hart) pop in for a scene or two , leading me to think that Rock leaned hard on his extensive rolodex to populate his film. Even with the parade of recognizable faces, Top Five does manage to mostly focus on the growing attraction between Allen and Brown, while providing asides and context for his life and career to date.
“Top Five” in the film refers to multiple character’s habits of listing their top five rappers – it’s a shorthand to get at someone’s likes and beliefs. It’s a useful device that receives a good callback at the film’s end. More interesting still is the movie’s look at recovery; Allen turns out to be a recovering alcoholic who’s unsure of his comedic chops while sober. Was it the booze and weed that made him funny all along? This conflict along with the romantic sub-plot form the crux of the drama, while colourful characters inform and expand the movie’s world around its edges. The long and winding road of Andre Allen’s endless day and night all lead to a climax that is thrilling and satiating for a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that it plays to Rock’s core strengths.
Where so many other movies (especially comedies) fizzle out or wheeze across the finish line, Top Five sticks the landing and ends on a high note. That goes a long way towards cementing its charm, along with a varied cast and warm familiarity to all the relationships. It’s not perfect by any means – there’s some clichés (like the easy targets of reality TV or deadbeat dads) and some increasingly common but still egregious product placement – but the film does feel like the best representation of Chris Rock on-screen to date. As shocking and funny as Rock’s best standup bits, Top Five‘s got something to say about Hollywood, relationships, race, comedy and lots more, and it’s worth listening to.