Top Five (2014)
Having been out of the spotlight for the past decade or so — bar starring in Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups (2010) series — Top Five marks a return to form for stand-up comedian turned actor Chris Rock, who digs under the surface of show business, politics, rap, the fame game and, what it means to be a black personality working in today’s entertainment industry, all within his newest film. With echoes of Woody Allen, Annie Hall (1977), or Dick Gregory, Reno 911! (2004), and the energy of Kanye West or Jay Z, Top Five is a radically courageous step for the 49-year old Rock, who also wrote the feature, as the picture unfolds as an honest, outrageous semi-autobiographical account, ranking as the comedian’s most accomplished big screen effort to date.
Written, directed and starring Chris Rock, Top Five tells the story of Andre Allen (Chris Rock), a New York comedian-turned-film-star currently trying to make a name for himself as a ‘serious’ actor. Engaged to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) — with their wedding planned for television broadcast — Allen hesitantly agrees to meet journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), in order to promote his latest film, Uprize — a picture about a violent Haitian slave revolt — which had been tracking poorly before it release. Once considered the funniest man in America, a top stand-up comedian and a popular movie star with a hit trilogy under his belt — Hammy the Bear, in which he played a cop in a bear suit alongside Luis Guzman — Allen’s encounter with Brown forces him to confront the comedy career, and the past, that he’s left behind.
Top Five, while entertaining, initially comes across as feeling somewhat scattered, playing out as an enjoyable narrative without much of a point, that is until the film hits its stride and begins to gel together in a more substantial way by the start of its third act. At its core, Top Five is a multi-layered character study, one that takes a fascinating look into the personal failure and popular rise of its star, Allen, followed by his personal success, which brings about his popular decline. While this juxtaposition no doubt makes for an interesting subject matter, one that often ventures into humorous and sometimes even dark territory, the film also delves into the ‘what if’ mind frame of a celebrity exploring the consequences of his decisions, whether large or small. Top Five perhaps works best after multiple viewings, as this allows patrons to absorb the narrative — and its dialogue — in the context of what’s to come opposed to taking it all on face value the first time around, either way, the film more or less adds up in a satisfying manner.
Chris Rock’s triple bill as writer, director and star doesn’t hurt the picture either, as his work on both sides of the camera is rather impressive. With tight direction, Rock effortlessly shapes a multifaceted story, balancing the picture’s raunchier moments — a specific sex scene comes to mind — with its more subtle parts, particularly the story-shaping conversations between Rock and co-star Dawson. In terms of performance, Rock radiates with charm and audacity, showcasing a smart, credible character evolution of personal discovery — partly through flashbacks — essentially carrying the weight of the picture on his shoulders. Bar an out of place side plot involving Chelsea’s boyfriend, Brad (Anders Holm), most of Rock’s gags hit their mark. Rosario Dawson, Seven Pounds (2008), makes for an excellent match, bouncing well off Rock’s Andre as their connection develops, smoothly displaying the reporter’s firm yet spirited demeanor. Seeing as the picture’s success basically hinges on both Rock and Dawson, their chemistry thankfully sells much of the premise. A glamorous Gabrielle Union, Bad Boys II (2003), is also quite solid as Erica Long, the woman Andre is about to marry on network television, bringing substantial depth to her fairly one-dimensional role, predominantly when Erica opens up about her lack of skill or strength, whereas J.B. Smoove, Date Night (2010), breathes life into his character, Silk, Andre’s good friend and security guard/assistant.
The picture additionally boasts an array of first-rate supporting players who are equally as amusing as they are hilarious and surprising. Cedric the Entertainer, A Haunted House (2013), steals all his scenes as Jazzy Dee, a freewheeling fraud who claims to be the go-to guy in Houston for drugs and alcohol, whilst Kevin Hart, Ride Along (2014), is a hoot in his minor role as Charles, Andre’s Ivy League-educated agent. Tracy Morgan, Cop Out (2010), seems to be improvising his lines — and enjoying himself too for that matter — as one of Andre’s childhood friends, Fred, and let’s not forget about rapper DMX, who hysterically mocks himself as he attempts to sing the blues inside a jail cell. It’s also worth noting that Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost (1990), pop up as ‘themselves’ during Andre’s bachelor party in the flick’s final act, each giving him their different views on marriage and sex. All of these clever ‘cameos’ however ingeniously aid the narrative in some way, shape or form, with no one coming across as a simple name-drop or promotional gimmick.
With an ending that pays homage to the age-old tale of Cinderella, Top Five makes for a worthwhile journey, even if it takes a little time to get there. Although the picture might not be suited to everyone’s taste — it may work better a second time around — Rock proves himself as an adept filmmaker, skillfully incorporating several truths about the entertainment industry inside of this challenging, contemplative and self-reflective effort. At the end of the day, Rock aims to illustrate that we are ultimately the sum of our choices, whether as trivial as listing our ‘top five’ rap acts; heck, he even managed to get me thinking about my own ‘top five’ as I exited the theater! It goes to show, the life of a comedian isn’t always bursting with fun and games.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Top Five is released through Paramount Pictures Australia