‘Top Five’ Review: The First Great Chris Rock Movie
Chris Rock has made movies before, but ‘Top Five’ is the first great “Chris Rock movie,” the one that feels like the product of the best and most important stand-up comic of his generation. ‘Top Five’ is infused from top to bottom with Rock’s voice, his humor, and also his love of movies. Rock, a self-avowed cinephile, has borrowed liberally from some of his favorite films (including Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Sunset,’ Preston Sturges’ ‘Sullivan’s Travels,’ and Woody Allen’s ‘Stardust Memories’) in creating the story of a disillusioned stand-up comic on the cusp of becoming a “serious” actor. The way Rock digests his inspirations, filters them through his own unique perspective, and spits them back out on the screen as something wholly his own recalls the way Quentin Tarantino turns exploitation obscurities into prestigious arthouse fare.
Like Tarantino, Rock also casts himself in all his films. Unlike Tarantino, Rock can act, and he delivers a passionate, serious, and funny performance as Andre Allen (the name is surely another tip of the cap to the ‘Annie Hall’ director who blazed a path from stand-up to auteur). After a successful comedy career, Andre transitioned to the big-screen, where he became an international star in the blockbuster franchise ‘Hammy the Bear,’ playing a talking grizzly who’s also a tough-as-nails police officer. Hammy was a huge success, but it was also an creative embarrassment. (Shouts of “Hey Hammy!” follow Andre wherever he goes in New York City.)
Andre’s in Manhattan to promote his new film, his first stab at making a drama. It’s called “Uprize,” and it tells the story of a legendary slave rebellion. It also looks absolutely terrible, and the buzz around town is that the movie is going to flop. In a desperate attempt to drum up publicity for “Uprize,” Andre reluctantly agrees to let a journalist from The New York Times write a profile about his life, even though the Times’ secretive film critic has mocked him publicly for years. He’s a bit more willing to play along when the Times’ reporter shows up and she’s the lovely Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a charming single mom and Andre Allen fan. As the duo stroll around the city, Andre slowly opens up about his struggles with substance abuse and his relationship with the reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) he’s about to marry at a televised, star-studded ceremony.
The walk-and-talk sections between Andre and Chelsea provide Rock a platform to air his thoughts about a variety of subjects, and the lively chemistry between the two actors adds a layer to suspense to the story. (Will Andre cheat on his fiancé? Will he relapse, and lose his hard-fought sobriety?) At times, their meandering conversations and digressions into random subjects make ‘Top Five’ feel like a flashy adaptation of a Rock standup set; here’s a few minutes on dating, now a riff on strippers. That’s a good thing. Previously, in trifles like ‘Head of State’ and noble misfires like ‘I Think I Love My Wife,’ the Rock viewers know and love from his television specials and CDs got lost in the shuffle. Here, he’s front-and-center—and squaring off with a worthy verbal sparring partner in Dawson.
Rock also surrounds himself with tons of great comedians who pop up for hilarious and heavily improvised cameos. At one point, Andre takes Chelsea back to his old neighborhood to meet some of his childhood friends; almost all of them are brilliant stand-ups and TV comics (including Tracy Morgan and rising ‘SNL’ star Leslie Jones). Andre’s bachelor party is filled with even more familiar faces, who offer him advice about marriage and adultery. Rock gives himself plenty of great zingers, but he’s also smart and egoless enough to put himself in the middle of a big and talented ensemble.
The stuff with the Times’ critic falls flat, and adding a third-act “twist” to the film’s relatively naturalistic narrative was a mistake (or, at the very least, a necessary evil to get Rock to the satisfying ending he wanted). But ‘Top Five’ is still a very entertaining and thoughtful tour through Manhattan and Rock’s own psyche. “I don’t feel funny!” Andre explains when his buddy (JB Smoove) asks why he refuses to return to stand-up and insists on making dour dreck like ‘Uprize.’ By the end of the film, we realize Andre wasn’t quite telling the truth. It not that Andre didn’t feel funny, it’s that he didn’t feel like being the sort of funny that Hollywood demanded: big, broad, and stupid. One wonders if writing, directing, and starring in ‘Top Five’ was Rock’s own reaction to similar struggles in the movie business. If so, we owe short-sighted executives a perverse debt of thanks.