'Top Five' Is the First Film to Fully Showcase Chris Rock’s Genius

Top Five is one of the most original and satisfying comedies in years.

Top Five

Director: Chris Rock
Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Cedric The Entertainer, JB Smoove, Tracy Morgan, Kevin Hart, Anders Holm, Jay Pharoah, Michael Che, Sherri Shepherd, Leslie Jones
Distributor: Paramount
Studio: IAC Films, Scott Rudin Productions
US Release Date: 2015-03-17

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.






'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.