TOP FIVE (2014)
Starring Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, J.B. Smoove, Sherri Shepherd, Anders Holm, Romany Malco, Leslie Jones, Michael Che, Jay Pharoah, Ben Vereen, Hayley Marie Norman, Karlie Redd, Luis Guzmán, Charlie Rose, Bruce Bruce, Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe, DMX, Jim Norton, Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld.
Screenplay by Chris Rock.
Directed by Chris Rock.
Distributed by Paramount Pictures. 101 minutes. Rated R.
As a stand-up comedian, when he is on – which is often – Chris Rock is a force of nature. A shooting star across the audience. A walking and talking exclamation point.
This fact has made his complete inability to translate his odd brilliance to the screen even more perplexing. At this point, Rock has made well over 30 films – six of his own and the rest as a gun for hire – and not one has come close to capturing the staggeringly potent mix of intelligence and wit that he regularly displays on stage.
That is, until now.
Top Five is not a perfect film, but it is head and shoulders above anything he has done previously. And it works because he finally takes himself on as his subject.
In fact, Top Five pretty much succeeds at what his good friend Adam Sandler attempted and failed at a few years ago with Funny People. It takes a complex look at the existential toll taken on a talented comedian who has sold out for years for an easy paycheck in Hollywood. (Sandler also shows up here for a good-natured cameo as himself, together with Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Whoopi Goldberg at a strip club for Rock’s character’s bachelor party. It is the most effortlessly funny that Sandler has been for years – perhaps ever.)
Some critics have suggested that Top Five is Rock’s Woody Allen film, and they are not completely wrong (though technically Rock’s earlier I Think I Love My Wife was also a stab at this type of film, it just didn’t succeed). It is a New York-based look at a comedian who despises his work (and is starting to despise himself) trying to come to terms with his life and his career by revisiting the place where it started.
Specifically like Woody in Stardust Memories, Rock’s character of Andre Allen is known for dumb-but-funny films (specifically a series of cop-in-a-bear-suit films called Hammy the Bear), but he sees himself as more of an artist. He wants to make serious films, but everyone is waiting for the next Hammy film. (He is constantly recognized on the street as Hammy, despite the fact that he is covered in a bear suit during the films).
Part of the problem is that his serious films are not particularly better than the stupid ones. Top Five shows Allen in New York doing press for a horrible looking film called Uprize!, a pretentious historical piece about Haitian slave revolutionaries. He is four years sober and starting to doubt his talent. The only heat his career is generating at all is appearing on the reality series about his bridezilla fiancée (Gabrielle Union) preparing for their nuptials.
It is at this crossroads that Allen is pressured into an interview with Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), a sweet and hip Hispanic writer for Rolling Stone who wants to find out who the man really is. He agrees to allow her to tag along with him all day as he juggles the film junket, the wedding and the old neighborhood.
Chelsea has her own problems going down, including identity issues (she has at least three “pen names” that we hear about), problems with her career, her family and romance. As the two travel up and down Manhattan, starting off guarded but becoming more and more truthful as the day goes on, they recognize in each other another lost artistic soul.
So what is it that makes Top Five (the awkward title comes from a running argument in which Andre’s family and friends debate the five best hip hop artists of all time) succeed when so many other Rock films have failed? Previously in his career, Rock appeared to be making a specialty of doing bad remakes of films that had already been done much better – such as Down to Earth (a remake of Heaven Can Wait), The Longest Yard, Death at a Funeral and I Think I Love My Wife (a remake of a French comedy called Chloe in the Afternoon).
Here it is obvious that he uses his own life as inspiration. I’m not saying that Top Five is necessarily completely biographical, but it certainly takes a hard look at a world with which Rock is intimately familiar. In doing so, it brings out that elusive star power that Rock so regularly taps when performing live. Finally, Chris Rock’s movie career is living up to its infinite potential.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 8, 2015.