Film Review – Top Five
Chris Rock’s Top Five (2014) is a movie that is in conflict with itself. On one hand, it’s an insightful examination of fame and artistic freedom. On the other, it’s a sexual comedy of the most obscene nature. Rock (who wrote and directed) is going for a different route, with observations that strive for something more meaningful. But he hampers his own ambition with his insistence on gross out humor, blindsiding the themes he’s trying to express.
Rock plays Andre, a well-known comedian who gained a fortune in mainstream, popcorn movies. His most famous role was of Hammy, a wise cracking, gun-toting police bear. Hammy’s catchphrase – fittingly – is “It’s Hammy Time!” Although Andre could have easily ridden off with his Hammy money, there’s another side pulling him away from that franchise. Andre holds bitterness for the character, because his success happened while he was a raging alcoholic and overall troublemaker. Seeing Hammy as a representation of his darker side, Andre attempts to step away from comedy and tackle more serious roles. His latest film is a dramatic portrayal of a Haitian slave revolutionary, a complete turn from the material audiences have fallen in love with him for.
This is an interesting look at an artist’s desire to avoid complacency. The parallels between Andre and Chris Rock are easy to make, and we can surmise a lot of the angst inside Andre are the same things Rock has mulled over in his own career. Andre’s line “I don’t feel funny anymore” has authenticity to it, and his struggle to balance his artistic wishes against the expectations of the masses has echoes of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and to a larger extent Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980). The crux of the plot has Andre interviewed by journalist Chelsea (Rosario Dawson) just prior to his marriage to Erica, (Gabrielle Union) a reality TV star. During this daylong interview, we learn of Andre’s feelings on his celebrity, his drug-fueled past, and his upcoming nuptials.
The writing is more thoughtful than your usual comedy. Rock comments on everything about being a black comedian and movie star. This is a lot to go over, since most of the plot has Andre and Chelsea walking the streets of New York in conversation. Rosario Dawson provides the best work as Chelsea, game for anything thrown her way. She can carry a debate, jump rope with neighborhood kids, and engage in some tomfoolery without skipping a beat. Rock takes the time to develop her character, filling in enough background to make her more than just one-dimensional. The back and forth the two share comes smoothly, and although Chris Rock does what he can with his performance, Dawson shines through in her usual way. We know where this “interview” is heading (the “Cinderella” allegory is everything but subtle), but admittedly I enjoyed seeing them take those familiar steps.
There are a lot of laughs to be had. For a movie that is written by a comedian about a comedian, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Rock shows off the skill that has made him one of the most accomplished funnymen out there. His punch lines are often sharp and biting. The film is at its best when the performers get to engage one another with dialogue. One of the highlights has Andre and Chelsea detouring to reunite with his family and friends. This extended scene – featuring SNL friends Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Michael Che, and Leslie Jones to name a few – works because it allows each of them to do what they do best with each other. If there were a movie about Andre’s family getting together for Thanksgiving dinner, I’d be the first in line to see that.
It’s the natural chemistry between the actors that makes Rock’s willingness for crude humor all the more head scratching. All the sexual escapades seem to come from a different movie, and throws the tone all over the place. How are we supposed to take Andre’s alcoholism seriously if it’s juxtaposed against scenes of outrageous obscenity? Seeing characters go wild is unnecessary and comes about in arbitrary fashion. It acts as a weight sinking everything else Rock has built up. At one point we see Andre and Chelsea in deep discussion about politics and racial representation in the media, and in the very next we watch Andre partake in naked jiujitsu with strangers. The themes get lost in the drug-induced haze.
Chris Rock pours a lot of ingredients into Top Five. Some of it sticks, but other parts fall very flat. Rock is too good of a writer (and a director) to resort to the lowest common denominator to get a laugh, or to throw some random cameo just for the sake of it. But to his credit, he has made unique choices at this early stage as a director. His previous outing, I Think I Love My Wife (2007), is a remake of Eric Rohmer’s French film Chloe in the Afternoon (1972). Hopefully he follows the trend and continues to develop his style. Despite any hiccups he displays here, he shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker.