by Sam Fragoso
If we were to list some of the most horrific cultural tragedies of the 20th and 21st century, the paucity of films that have effectively captured the comic genius that is Chris Rock would have to … not make that list. It wouldn’t even make the honorable mentions. But still, it’s astounding that after three decades of work in cinema, Rock’s sensibility has failed to be transplanted successfully from stage to screen. Alas, Top Five is probably as close as we’ll ever get to a proper Chris Rock joint. Vulgar, obscene and insightful, Rock’s third directorial effort proves to be his strongest and most similar to his rollicking standup routines.
At once autobiographical and satirical, the film picks up with Andre (Rock), a celebrated comedian no longer interested in being the funny man. After four years of sobriety, Andre believes he’s incapable of making people laugh without being intoxicated. So instead of comedy, he does drama – cast as the leader of a Haitian slave rebellion in a self-serious film entitled Uprize! And yes, the fictitious film looks as abhorrent as it sounds, and Andre knows it.
To dive into Andre’s past and present states of mind we have New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who spends a day with him walking around the city for a profile she’s penning. This conceit allows for Andre’s past to be explored organically. She pushes as the resolute reporter and he pulls away as the guarded celebrity. Rock and Dawson create this dynamic that oozes humor and warmth, a sensation one similarly receives when watching any of Rock’s ingenious HBO specials.
Concurrent to the interview is Andre’s upcoming wedding, which his soon-to-be wife (Gabrielle Union) insists on being televised. While one could easily write this subplot off as a clever parody of MTV culture, Rock digs deeper. Andre’s wife longs for this moment in time – her 15 seconds of fame before she fades back into oblivion, recognized only for being the spouse of someone famous. She possesses no special abilities that would yield public interest. All she has is this ornate wedding and Andre. It’s a clear, yet saddening comment on the abundance of television programs inhabited by people who have no genuine talents. Their gift is to be publicly vain and outlandish – which, fortunate for them, seems to be what modern America craves.
Thankfully, our society longs for a great many things, one of those being Rock’s tireless persona. And that’s really the beautiful irony of Top Five – a film in which its protagonist insists he can no longer be funny that proceeds to make us laugh for 100 minutes. But at the heart of the film is a desperate plea for respect and consideration. Andre’s desire to be taken seriously as an actor is eerily reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, a Fellini homage that revolves around a dispirited director who refuses to make anything resembling his “earlier, funny ones.” However, coming of the heels of Annie Hall, Interiors and Manhattan, Allen’s underappreciated gem feels more like a self-portrait than anything else. The nebbish New Yorker had become enervated, beaten-down, trapped by the success he had created with his slapstick fare. Allen wanted something more out of his art, but does Rock?
It’s a question that pulsates all throughout the film before finally coming to the answer, “Well, maybe.” Top Five indicates Rock is still toying with the idea of opening himself up and abandoning the pretense that accompanies his comedy. Unlike Richard Pryor or Robin Williams, Rock’s specials don’t play like riotous, revealing sessions with a therapist. While uproarious, Rock’s standup routines don’t often explore the dark recess of his mind. And quite frankly, neither does the film. Both hint at possibly going down this route, but neither can fully commit. Not yet. Perhaps one day.
The Good: Rap-filled soundtrack, Rock’s untamable humor, quality casting, the generally lighthearted tone, the ending.
The Bad: Some the narrative detours with Andre and Chelsea, problems created artificially contrivances, Rock’s inability to be vulnerable.
On the side: Top Five’s DP Manuel Claro was also DP on Melancholia and Nymphomaniac.
*Editor’s note: Our review of Top Five originally ran during this year’s TIFF, but we’re re-posting it as the film is now in theaters.