Chris Rock has been one of the finest standup comics in the world (possibly even the greatest) for a few decades now. He’s also been a movie star during that period, yet never quite found a film that could come close to matching what he’s capable of on stage. Thankfully, ‘Top Five’ has come along to put that conundrum to rest. Written, directed and starring the comedian, it feels like the first real Chris Rock movie. It’s just as raw, honest and jaw-droppingly funny as we’ve come to expect Rock to be as a comic.
‘Top Five’ is actually Chris Rock’s third directorial effort. While his previous flicks ‘Head of State’ and ‘I Think I Love My Wife’ had their moments, this is a whole other ballgame. Taking clear cues from Woody Allen, Rock has delivered a film that feels somewhat autobiographical even though it’s clearly not.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a once-beloved standup comedian who now headlines crappy studio comedies. (His biggest hits are a series of movies where he wears a stupid bear suit.) He’s also about to marry a Reality TV queen (Gabrielle Union) as part of his fame addiction, is just about to launch his first dramatic film about an obscure slave revolt (it’s horrible), and is a recovering alcoholic. So, Allen is stuck in one of those pressure cooker periods of life that can only culminate with important life revelations and/or a nervous breakdown. To top everything off, he’s scheduled to be interviewed by a beautiful New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson). That interview stretches out into a day-long, life-searching, Linklater-like chat with stop-offs at both of their homes. From there, sparks fly and trouble brews.
This is a pretty solid concept for a comedy, borrowing from ‘Stardust Memories’ and the ‘Before Sunrise’ series while still feeling like a distinctly Rockian enterprise. First and foremost, the film scores huge laughs as a result of Rock calling in almost all of his showbiz buddies for fantastic cameos. Cedric the Entertainer makes a gross-out highlight in a flashback to the rock-bottom of Andre’s addiction, which involves an unfortunately stained mattress. Tracy Morgan and Leslie Jones almost steal the movie away in an achingly funny trip to Andre’s childhood home. J.B. Smoove keeps things unpredictable as his closest friend and manager. Best of all, Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld mercilessly tear down their squeaky clean images in an amazing bachelor party sequence. (Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Seinfeld interact with strippers.)
Rock pours on the filth and piles up a series of incredible supporting performances to ensure the film’s laugh count never dips. Yet, what makes ‘Top Five’ a truly impressive film is that he has more on his mind than simple chuckles.
Rock’s bitter little pill of a screenplay stacks up healthy doses of showbiz satire, some brutal observations about various addictions, and a central love story that actually adds to the film rather than serving as a coat hanger for comedy. His skill as a satirist is on full display, while his knack for human observation plays out just as strongly. The bulk of the running time is dedicated to Rock and Dawson trading barbs, flirtation and philosophy. Their chemistry is palpable and Rock knows how to milk emotion from their romance without devolving into obvious manipulation or rom-com clichés. Sure, the movie has moments when his screenwriting can feel a little too on-the-nose, but for the most part, Rock’s first solo-screenplay takes the searing writing that he’s developed on stage and mixes in some unpredictable narrative juggling.
‘Top Five’ might not technically be Chris Rock’s directorial debut, but it’s certainly his breakthrough project. The film was made for a low budget outside the Hollywood system and had audiences laughing and applauding so hard at the Toronto Film Festival last fall that it was picked up by Paramount for a record high figure. Now it’s coming out as a mainstream release. Hopefully, the movie is a hit. If Rock suddenly has the freedom to make more movies that capture his voice so effectively, Hollywood comedies will be in a much better place.