Top Five is not Chris Rock’s first time in the director’s chair, but it is the first time he’s seemed truly comfortable sitting there. For far too long, Rock’s film output has been a pale reflection of his fiery, fearless stand-up persona, consisting mostly of awkwardly paced PG-13 fare or misguided romantic farce. Not that everything he does needs to be incisive, profane commentary, but perhaps in a bid to avoid being pigeonholed, his choice of film projects has been so broad that in the end, he has always appeared oddly replaceable in the roles he chose.
This is not so with Top Five. Every corner of it feels like it could have come only from Rock’s mind, a trait that makes it both refreshingly sincere and punishingly uncomfortable.
First, the good. Top Five follows a day in the life of Andre Allen, a world-famous comedian-turned-actor-turned-reluctant reality TV husband. It’s been years since he gave up his hugely successful Hammy franchise (as well as his abuse of alcohol), and in a bid for respectability he’s made a doomed slave rebellion drama. In promoting the film and his upcoming televised wedding, Andre agrees to be profiled by journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) for The New York Times as he visits old haunts, explores his fixations and troubled history, answers probing questions and figures out what it is that truly drives him.
In going semi-autobiographical with Andre, we see a side of Rock that until now has only come out through his stand-up and interviews—the thoughtful joker who found success doing something silly but has more to offer the world. Andre’s last name, Allen, is a fitting tribute to Rock’s cinematic role model Woody Allen, whose films clearly inspired the pacing, cinematography and dialogue of Top Five. (In an interview with the Times’ Frank Rich, Rock admitted to checking into hotels under the name Alvy Singer, Allen’s nebbish leading man in Annie Hall.) The film is clearly cathartic for Rock as he explores the strain that fame has had on him, the difficulty of maintaining your roots while playing the show biz game, and of becoming a superstar while still battling your own demons.
However, the fact that Andre is so close to Rock makes things uncomfortable and disjointed whenever he attempts to step out of his comfort zone. Every laugh-out-loud disgusting hotel orgy scene is offset by go-nowhere jokes about Andre’s handler’s uncomfortable, unfunny fixation on large women or the strained romance between Andre and Chelsea. The sophistication of Andre’s monologues are undermined by the absurdly obvious foreshadowing. There are far too many laugh-free stretches, and the script could certainly have used a keener view of women beyond objects of lust, romance or derision. There’s a lot to love in the Top Five experience, but it’s just not a very good movie.
That said, Rock deserves more applause than jeers for this outing. He has no doubt turned down countless shitty roles and uninspired comedy comeback specials to make something that belongs entirely to him. If he can address these points with subsequent projects, he may become a cinematic force. He has a lot to say, and perhaps attempted to say too much in a single go rather than making a focused film. You will laugh harder at some scenes than you have at any film in a long time, but that only makes Top Five’s quiet times feel emptier.
Playing this week
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Horrible Bosses 2
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
Penguins of Madagascar
The Theory of Everything
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX