If there’s one thing Chris Rock knows, it’s funny. Sure, he’s also insightful about race and social inequality, adept at dissecting relationships and the growing gender divide, and salient on such potentially taboo subjects as politics, religion, and personal responsibility. But when it comes right down to it, the man is funny. Hilarious. Grips your sides in laughter uproarious. End of discussion.
Sadly, his work on screen rarely matches the true magic on stage. Whether he’s slumming with his pal Adam Sandler or trying his own hand at the often unreachable triple threat (acting, writing, directing), the best he’s come up with so far are Head of State (meh) and I Think I Love My Wife (better)… that is, until now. While Top Five shows he’s still a bit shaky when it comes to his cinematic skill set, it is a triumph. It is easily his best movie ever, as well as one of the best comedies of 2014.
Paying homage to an obvious influence, Rock plays Andre Allen, a New Yorker back in the Big Apple to promote his latest attempt at being taken seriously. A famous funny man, our hero hates that he’s still associated with a lowbrow action series which has made him very wealthy, and equally unhappy. He hopes to breakthrough with an epic about a turn of the century slave rebellion in Haiti. So far, however, everyone hates it, including his manager/agent (Kevin Hart), his personal assistant and boyhood friend (J.B. Smoove), and the studio suits who are anticipating a huge flop.
Reluctantly, he agrees to an interview with New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who turns out to be personable and friendly. She and Andre hit it off immediately, but there is trouble in this almost instantaneous paradise. He’s engaged to be married to a Kim Kardasian-esque reality star named Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), with the cable outlet Bravo already preparing and footing the bill for a huge media event wedding. Over the course of a single day in Manhattan, Andre reveals his flaws, the best and worst times of his early career, and why he no longer wants to “be funny”. He also realizes that Chelsea may be a better match for him than Erica.
Satiric and scatological, laugh-out-loud hilarious, and defiantly introspective, Top Five represents Chris Rock at near the top of his game. Near, not at. While it can’t match his majesty as a stand up, it still provides the perfect vehicle for the comedian to work out his own scattered Stardust Memories issues. For those unfamiliar with that weird Woody Allen film, the narrative centered on an angst driven director attending a festival of his films and constantly attempting to dodge the ever-present battle between art and celebrity. All this fictional filmmaker wants to do is mimic the foreign greats and make important works. All his fanbase wants are “more funny movies”. Even an attempt at asking God for the meaning of life ends with the punchline “tell funnier jokes”.
Here, Rock avoids the existential in order to keep things real, and by doing so, he dips into a wide variety of subjects often lost in most satires. Yes, race is here, but it’s spun and reconfigured via different means. One place is in a last act bachelor party where Jerry Seinfeld and the aforementioned Sandler attempt to clarify their place in the urban setting. They faux pas are fascinating. Another happens during a radio station promo recording session. Rock does allow his actors to toss around the N-word, but it’s not done for shock. Indeed, we are even spared the inevitable scene where someone inappropriate blurts it out. For Andre Allen, prejudice is not part of the problem; it is, however, a lingering given lying in wait beneath every daily interaction.
Fame is also a focus here. Andre offers up a flashback to a time in Houston where a promoter (Cedric the Entertainer) promises him a night out with a couple of hot-to-trot girls. After the Farrelly Brothers-esque tryst, they come looking for cash. One single screamed word later and our lead is locked up. Something similar is happening to him currently.
His “relationship” with Erica is false, a recovering addict’s means of making sense of a sober world. While it may just be a way of deconstructing the entire reality TV type, Rock also includes a telling moment when Ms. Union must remove the media mask behind her craven character.
But the real star here is Rosario Dawson, which is unsurprising given that one tends to expect such greatness from a fine actress like her. As Chelsea, she’s honest and forthright, never letting Rock’s manipulative character countermand her personal or professional needs. She’s also flirtatious and funny, capable of delivering one liners like a pro. Even better, she bolsters her director’s intentions. This is only Rock’s third time behind the lens, and he needs all the support he can get. Sure, a sequence where he visits old friends requires little finesse, with cameos from Tracy Morgan and Sheri Sheppard providing the polished adlibbing. But in those moments when the emotions are supposed to count, when we move from denouement to denunciation, it’s Dawson who does the heavy lifting. She’s Rock’s rock.
Granted, this is one funnyman who is clearly aiming for the stars with this slightly autobiographical riff, but the main purpose of any comedy is laughs. And, as previously said, Rock knows funny. If all you care about is a good time at the movies, spending 100 or so minutes with a comedian whose been known to bring down the house as he raises his audience’s consciousness, then Top Five is for you.
The title refers to an ongoing discussion between Andre and his pals about the best rap MCs of all time. It could also argue for this film’s place among the funnyman’s best work.