Rock in top form with Top Five
With Top Five, Chris Rock gives us his first directing/writing/acting trifecta since 2007’s relatively unknown I Think I Love my Wife. Top Five should fare better, as it has something for everyone; it combines the raunchy humor of today’s most popular comedies with more cerebral humor. If the Farrelly Brothers had directed Birdman, the result might look something like Top Five. While the result often feels a bit disjointed, the film always succeeds in eliciting laughs.
Birdman features Michael Keaton as a former action movie star trying to redeem himself via a serious Broadway play. Similarly, in Top Five, Chris Rock plays Andre, a former comedian and comic film franchise star (he’s a costumed crime-fighting bear named Hammy, with his own catch phrase: “It’s Hammy time!”) who wants to leave his comic personae behind and move toward more dramatic roles, beginning with a film about a Haitian revolutionary (Uprize!)
A New York Times reporter named Chelsea (Rosario Dawson, who has terrific chemistry with Rock) is assigned to shadow Andre on the opening day of his new film to do a profile piece, and so we, too, get to tag along with the duo through various radio interviews, promotional events, and other stops throughout Manhattan, some of which involve errands for Andre’s upcoming wedding to a self-involved reality show star, Erica (Gabrielle Union). The film uses this premise to poke fun at celebrity culture, the fleeting nature of fame, reality shows, movies and press junkets, and even Tyler Perry.
Such a framework allows plenty of room for a lot of comic bits, and, as a result, the film sometimes feels more like a random assortment of sketches mashed together rather than a cohesive, whole narrative. You get the sense Rock had so many ideas that he didn’t want to leave anything out, and so instead used the thinnest of plot lines to tie everything together.
One of these through lines – which inspires the movie’s title – is that Andre and his friends are always asking each other their “top fives,” as in favorite rap songs. A who’s who of rap artists make appearances, and the soundtrack is sure to please rap and hip hop fans. And comics with larger parts – including Kevin Hart as Andre’s put upon agent and Anders Holm as Chelsea’s boyfriend – turn in sharply smart comedic performances, as does Rock himself. He gives a nuanced, sensitive performance that, while always funny, is wistful and introspective in a Stardust Memories sort of way (Rock has long cited his admiration of Woody Allen’s films, and you can feel Allen’s influence tonally here).
Because Rock throws so much into his picture, you can decide what works for you. There are plenty of Hangover-esque moments, some of which fare better than others. Indeed, the film is not for the squeamish, and if you like politically correct comedy, you may want to skip this one. Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air recently called Rock out on a particularly crude scene involving hot sauce not being used for its intended purpose (to put it mildly), but Rock defended the joke. Another scene involving a small-time Houston comedy club promoter (a scene-stealing Cedric the Entertainer) and two prostitutes has a misogynistic tinge, but a visual gag that follows, of Rock curled up alone in bed after a particularly intense night of debauchery – is one of the movie’s most outrageous, funniest bits.
Much more consistently effective, though, are the moments in the film that don’t rely on broad, gross-out jokes for their humor. A scene in which Andre brings Chelsea to meet his friends, for example, finds a collection of some of the brightest comedy talents today gathered in a living room, basically just riffing and playing off each other. Saturday Night Live former and current cast members Tracy Morgan, Michael Che, Jay Pharoah, and the great Leslie Jones, among others, rely on nothing but their words to make each other – and us – laugh, and it’s side-splittingly fun to watch a scene that, if not purely improvised, definitely has that feel.
Similarly, near the end of the film, Chelsea convinces Andre to return to his stand up roots and spontaneously take the mike at a comedy club. Rock’s set here ends up being a highlight of the movie, and proves why his own career has survived ups and downs, and why he’s still one of the most relevant, hilarious forces in comedy today. He gets off a JFK joke, for example, that, depending on your point of view, is either brilliantly edgy, or, even now, over 50 years later, way too soon.
And a scene in which four great legends of comedy (who I won’t name, so as not to spoil the fun surprise) hang with Andre in a strip club during his bachelor party and offer him marital advice runs a tight race with Rock’s stand up scene for the hands-down, funniest bit in the entire film.
And that’s what makes Top Five a great comedy, despite its choppy story arc. Not everyone is going to laugh at every scene, but I guarantee every scene will get a laugh from someone.
Top Five opens today at the AMC Metreon and the AMC Van Ness in San Francisco, and at the AMC Bay Street in Emeryville and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.