Ever since Bring the Pain, Chris Rock’s iconic HBO special from 1996, the comedian has rightfully been regarded as one of the most talented stand-up acts of all time. Biting and irreverent, Rock is arguably the only one who can make sex jokes sound intellectual. “Men cannot go backwards sexually, women cannot go backwards in lifestyle,” Rock quips, and we laugh because we know that there’s an element of truth there. It’s somewhat of a surprise, then, to find that Top Five (2014) is the first film that fully showcases Rock’s genius.
This isn’t to say that all of Rock’s previous films have been terrible. His performances in Nurse Betty (2000) and 2 Days in New York (2012) are excellent, and I Think I Love My Wife (2007), his directorial interpretation of Éric Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon (1972), is better than its critical reputation suggests. However, none of these films could have prepared us for Top Five, Rock’s magnum opus, the closest he’ll ever get to his idol, the iconic New York filmmaker Woody Allen.
Rock has expressed his admiration for Allen in numerous interviews, and we can see Allen’s influence throughout the film. Top Five is set in New York, and like Allen’s films it is a romantic comedy about neurotic intellectuals. What stops the film from becoming a rip-off, however, is Rock’s pop culture sensibility. If Marshall McLuhan’s cameo in Annie Hall (1977) appeals to Allen’s elite demographic, then the appearance of rapper DMX in Top Five is hilarious to those with working-class roots. For all of the similarities, it’s fair to say that Allen would never open his film with Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Niggas in Paris”, a boastful rap song about, well, being in Paris.
Rock stars as Andre Allen (the name is likely a nod to Woody), a successful stand-up comedian who “sold out” in pursuing his film career and wants to be taken seriously as an actor. He is engaged to reality star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), and spends most of his time promoting his film Uprize!, an inspiring drama about a Haitian slave uprising. Rock is aware of the absurdity, and it’s a testament to his talent that many viewers will likely want to see a finished version of Uprize! in the future.
The film is set in a single day, and most of it focuses on the relationship between Andre and Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter assigned to interview Andre. Their relationship is the center of the film, and it is a pleasure to watch Rock and Dawson bring these characters to life.
Like Birdman (2014), Top Five is about fame, ego, and obsession. In one of the film’s standout scenes, Andre visits his old neighborhood in Brooklyn, and he is reminded of his roots. The feelings of warmth and familiarity have not subsided, and there’s a sense of community that Andre cannot replace in Hollywood. The ease with which Andre interacts with his old friends and family, played wonderfully by Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Michael Che, and Sherri Shepherd, contrasts the strained relationship he has with his self-obsessed fiancé. Rather than pity those he left behind, Rock fondly recalls his old neighborhood, and it’s one of the most loving tributes to African-American culture in recent memory.
Although Top Five is a comedy, there are unflinching moments of brutal honesty, such as when Andre and Chelsea discuss the difficulties of sobriety. In these scenes, we glimpse the price of celebrity, and the reality of bouncing back after a public breakdown. It is common practice in today’s culture for celebrities to enter rehab after a scandal, and Rock shows the human side of this struggle. Recovery is a painful process, and rarely has a mainstream comedy depicted it with such authenticity.
Much has been made about the film’s surprise cameos and supporting players, in particular a scene-stealing Cedric the Entertainer, but this is Rock’s film. Unlike most mainstream comedies that come out of Hollywood, Top Five defies conventions and bursts with energy. It is vital and alive, and has much in common with Louis C.K.’s FX series Louie. A freewheeling spontaneity flows through the film, as if Rock is at last uninhibited to make art on his own terms.
With the exception of a hilarious commentary by Rock and co-star JB Smoove, the Blu-ray doesn’t offer any worthwhile bonus features. The deleted scenes and outtakes aren’t enough to convince the costumer to purchase the Blu-ray instead of stream the film for a cheaper price on their computers. Regardless of your viewing preference, however, Top Five deserves your time and attention.
For some reason, the film didn’t explode at the box office like it should have. This is problematic, especially since Rock was all over the place promoting it. Let’s chalk it up to bad timing, and hope that Top Five is soon rediscovered. It is the best comedy of 2014, and the most original and satisfying attempt at the genre in years. It reinforces Rock’s status as the funniest man in show business, and proves that with the right material, he is a fantastic filmmaker with a fresh perspective.