There’s no denying Chris Rock’s stand-up status. He’s that rare comedian that can be both serious and scatological and still get his point across. He’s succeeded in most mediums, except one: film. He’s been a go-to addition to several slight laughers (usually alongside buddy Adam Sandler), but as a breakout star of his own mainstream movies, he’s had very limited — I Think I Love My Wife, Head of State — returns. All that is about to change, however, with the sensational revisionist rom-com Top Five. Combining the best of Woody Allen and his own particular urban perspective, Rock has come up with one of the funniest films of 2014.
When we meet Andre Allen (Rock), he’s in the middle of a major career crisis. Having long left the stage for a spate of derivative, dopey big screen action efforts (where he plays Hammy the Bear, a crime fighting bruin), he now wants to be taken seriously as an actor. Sadly, the movie he’s promoting, about a slave uprising in Haiti, is destined to bomb. Making the press rounds in NYC, Allen reluctantly accepts the advice of his agent (Kevin Hart) and right-hand man (J.B. Smoove) to talk to the New York Times via reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), even though he has a personal vendetta against the paper’s critic.
Immediately intrigued, our hero hobbles from one PR fiasco to another, all while juggling his upcoming nuptials to a Kim Kardashian-like reality star (Gabrielle Union). Over the course of his day in the Big Apple, he’ll reconnect with his family and childhood friends, attend his bachelor party, and relive the highs (and frequent lows) of his life both outside and deep inside the limelight. Eventually, we learn of his addiction to alcohol, the trouble drugs and drink got him into, and the real reason he decided to stop “being funny” in the first place.
While it suffers a bit from Rock’s still developing eye behind the lens and frequently feels truncated outside of some obvious improvised hilarity, Top Five is a smart and savvy comedy. It’s insightful when it needs to be and outrageous when the mood hits it. Where else but in a movie like this would you experience deep conversations about personal vulnerabilities and dreams juxtaposed alongside sex romps and pools of spent coital “essence.” Indeed, the discussions here are electric, Rock and Dawson trading barbs and bravado like fighters sizing up their opponents. The chemistry is instant, making the somewhat formulaic journey from aloofness to affection (with a mandatory stop-over at anger and accusations along the way) all the more believable.
Handling his triple threat creative control with decisive ease, this is the Rock we’ve been missing, the contemporary commentator on current affairs mixed with a mindset squarely within the black experience in modern America. Race is part of this package, but he doesn’t overwhelm the audience with his message. Instead, he lets others (clueless DJs, famous friends and fans) do the heavily lifting for him. The title refers to an ongoing game between Allen and his cronies, each one required to list their five favorite rap MCs of all time. This, along with the obvious attack on reality TV via Ms. Union’s talentless Bravo babe, highlight a comedian who understands the comedic value of both nostalgia and the now.
Yes, there are flaws here, viewpoint choices and actual editing missteps which jolt in an otherwise smooth presentation, and Rock himself isn’t playing a character so much as the public perception of what his “charmed” celebrity life is like. Yet even in its obviousness, Top Five finds a way to circumvent expectations and bring something new to the tired genre tropes. We see what’s happening, how the relationship between Allen and his TV tycoon is nothing more than trumped up ratings bait, and yet we enjoy the eventual denouement. Even the potential pairing with Chelsea has a smart send-off.
While he’s still number one on the stand-up circuit, Top Five suggests where Chris Rock may place as a filmmaker a few years from now.