Pulsing with the rhythm of his greatest stand-up, Chris Rock’s Top Five takes things to the next level, reveling in the high and the low, and blending a star-studded comedic romp with an irresistible romance. Top Five digs under the surface of show business, politics, rap, and the exigencies of being black and famous today-holding it all up to the light in the way only Chris Rock can. Mingling echoes of Woody Allen and Dick Gregory with the energy of Kanye West and Jay Z, Top Five is an original and radically new kind of American movie. Written, directed by, and starring Chris Rock, Top Five tells the story of New York City comedian-turned-film star Andre Allen, whose unexpected encounter with a journalist (Rosario Dawson) forces him to confront the comedy career-and the past-that he’s left behind.
As a standup comic, Chris Rock is among the best in the business. As a film star…well, he’s frequently chosen projects that fail to use him properly. No one has seemed to figure out the best way to take Rock’s specific brand of comedy and translate it to a big screen. That is, until Top Five, which finds Rock taking on writing and directing duties himself.
That’s not to say that this is a perfect showcase for Rock, or a great film in general. It’s not. The film relies heavily on different segments and scenarios, some of which register far more effectively than others. It’s scattershot, certainly. Still, even in its weaker moments, Top Five is at the very least charming.
Rock stars as Andre Allen, an actor best known for the days when he was a stand-up comic, who’s attempting to promote his new vanity project – an Oscar-baity biopic on a leader of the Haitian Revolution. For one day, he’s joined by a writer for the New York Times, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) as he moves from press junkets to meetings with his family to a bachelor party for his upcoming wedding to a reality TV star. Her goal is to find out why Allen, a recovering alcoholic/drug user, stopped doing comedy.
There’s a lot covered here, and overall, it does work to the film’s benefit. The story rarely sticks with a particular anecdote or setting for too long, in a way that’s somewhat similar to a series of stories told by a stand-up comic. In other words, if something doesn’t work (and there are some segments that don’t), a new one’s bound to show up in 5-10 minutes. And boy, do some of them work. Just to name three, without getting too specific:
- Cedric the Entertainer as a promoter during Allen’s bottoming-out in Houston.
- DMX crooning a classic song in a jail cell.
- Andre’s take on what Tupac might be doing today if he were still alive.
In between the segments, and sometimes inside of them, we get conversations between Allen and Brown on everything from alcoholism to politics, including an odd theory that connects Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to Planet of the Apes. While some of the segments provide the most humor, the most enjoyable parts come when Rock and Dawson are paired together, just talking. Dawson is, as always, a charming and inviting presence, and she in particular is able to pull Rock into a three-dimensional character.
As I said, though, not everything works. The biggest standout in this regards Brown’s relationship with her boyfriend, and the culmination of that relationship. I feel like “homophobic” is too strong for the scenario (especially in light of another film that’s out today), but the conclusion of the scene plays into outdated, less open-minded views on male sexuality. It also enters into an issue I’ve now seen twice in the last month: that sexual assault/rape against a man is somehow funny. I’m more mixed on the results here than in Horrible Bosses 2, but it’s still an issue.
Still, especially in comparison to the bulk of Rock’s film work, Top Five is a notable step forward. If anything, I’d like to see if this is just an anomaly in his film work, or the beginning of a new and exciting phase of his career.