Directed by: Chris Rock.
Written by: Chris Rock.
Starring: Chris Rock (Andre Allen), Rosario Dawson (Chelsea Brown), J.B. Smoove (Silk), Gabrielle Union (Erica Long), Romany Malco (Benny Barnes), Anders Holm (Brad), Cedric the Entertainer (Jazzy Dee), Karlie Redd (Rhonda), Hayley Marie Norman (Tammy), Annaleigh Ashford (Michele), Ben Vereen (Carl), Michael Che (Paul), Sherri Shepherd (Vanessa), Jay Pharoah (Mike), Tracy Morgan (Fred), Hassan Johnson (Craig), Leslie Jones (Lisa).
Chris Rock’s first two films as a director, Head of State (2003) and I Think I Love My Wife (2007) are both okay films – that are enjoyable, but it seemed like in both Rock was somewhat neutering himself to try and gain more mass popularity. This is something he doesn’t do in his brilliant stand-up routines – which has made him one of the most loved comics of his generation. But neither Rock, nor any other director, was ever really able to translate that energy into a movie. With his third film, Top Five, Rock has finally succeeded. He doesn’t seem as worried about mass appeal this time – which ironically, could end up being his most successful film. That is because it finally taps into what makes Rock such a great standup. The film is funny throughout, but it also has an edge, and it also seems distinctly personal – as if Rock is finally channeling something of himself into his movies. A few missteps aside, Top Five is one of the best comedies of the year.
In the film Rock plays Andre Allen, a famous standup, who became a movie star with some awful looking movies, where he plays a cop who is also a bear. A recovering alcoholic, Andre now longer wants to do “funny” movies – he wants to do something more serious – like his new film about the Haitian slave revolution (which, by the way, looks just as bad). He is also about to marry Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), a Kardashian-like reality show star, in what will be a major television event. On the day his latest movie is to open, Andre has to go around New York and do a lot of press for the film – and he has his bachelor party, which of course will be filmed, that night as well. At the end of the day, he’s going to get on a plane and go to LA for the wedding. And against his better judgment, he has agreed to be followed around by a New York Times reporter, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). To his surprise, he actually has a connection with Chelsea – a recovering alcoholic herself, also going through some personal issues herself. And because of that, she gets him to open up more than he usually does – certainly more than we see in his other, junket style interviews.
Andre Allen, of course, does bear a resemblance to Chris Rock himself – which is allows Rock to essentially be himself on screen for the first time (or at least, be his onstage persona). There are times when Rock almost seems to be doing standup more than making a movie – a large get together with his childhood friends is a perfect example of this. This would be a problem if it wasn’t so funny – which it is, and not just because of Rock, but because he allows those supporting players to have some great moments as well. Much of the movie is made up of Rock and Dawson walking the streets of New York (or in the back of the car), just talking, and Rock indulges himself a little bit in these scenes as well. But the best thing Rock does in the film as a writer and director is to create a real role for the immensely talented Dawson to play – if Rock is ever in danger of spinning out of control, Dawson reels him back in. She is whip smart, funny, sexy and challenges Andre the way no one else ever really does – and this both interests him, and at times angers him. But it allows Andre, and Rock, to be more honest than I’ve seen him in a movie before. Rock is hilarious, playing a thinly veiled version of himself, but Dawson’s is far and away the better performance. And Rock is generous with the supporting cast as well – with great roles all around, perhaps none better than Cedric the Entertainer as a Houston promoter who Andre meets in a flashback sequence.
Top Five takes a few missteps along the way. I’m not sure I quite agree that a subplot involving Dawson’s boyfriend is homophobic – but it certainly borders on it, and is unnecessary to boot. And a third act plot twist, which is easy to see coming, is more than somewhat ridiculous, and unnecessary. I also would have loved to see more of Gabrielle Union – who we only see on the phone, and for the most part looked like a shallow, superficial punching bag – but has one scene where she shows an unexpected depth that made me want to see more of her. But she’s almost an afterthought, because the chemistry between Rock and Dawson makes it obvious where the movie is heading.
Still, Top Five is one of the most enjoyable comedies of the year – and the one that shows that if Rock wants to be, he could become a great writer-director-actor. The film reminds me of Woody Allen (in some ways, you could compare it to Stardust Memories), but with a definite Rock-twist. After two bland movies in the director’s chair, Rock finally figured out what to do himself. Let’s hope he keeps going.