Top Five is Chris Rock’s greatest accomplishment yet, mixing his signature brand of comedy with a hip and savvy filmmaking technique borrowed from some of cinema’s finest.
In Top Five Chris Rock plays Andre Allen, a former actor/comedian superstar who is now exists as a shallow and insecure shell of himself. He’s older, sober engaged to a reality TV star, and has long since traded the authentic experience of stand-up comedy for a string of silly, cash-grab movies (the reprehensible “Hammy the Bear” films).
When we meet the former comedy legend, it is in NYC on the opening day of “Uprize!”, his desperate attempt at acting prestige. That event brings him into the company of a savvy and talented journalist named Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who hopes to profile Andre from his past to this point in his career. But as they walk and talk through the streets of New York City, Chelsea’s unflinching probe of Andre’s career, life, and choices, force the star to do some hard soul-searching about where he’s going, and who he wants to be.
For writer/director Chris Rock, the third time making a feature-film proves to be the charm. Top Five is Chris Rock’s greatest accomplishment yet, mixing his signature brand of comedy with a hip and savvy filmmaking technique borrowed from some of cinema’s finest.
On a directorial level, the film is something of a beautiful mishmash; Top Five is fairly being labeled as ‘Chris Rock’s Woody Allen movie,’ and in a lot of ways that’s a fair assessment. Top Five is essentially one long conversation held during a day-long odyssey around New York City, and it comes with Allen-style off-kilter rumination on everything from the entertainment industry, to the nature of love and relationships, to the elements and choices that make us who we are.
But while Allen’s films may be a starting point, Top Five is definitely a shade different, incorporating a lot of African-American and hip-hop cultural tropes and themes (primarily of the ’90s era) that are the biggest inspirations for Rock to express himself in a more personalized, signature voice.
Added to the film’s stylistic composure are more than a few signatures from the playbook of Steven Soderbergh. The mis-en-scene composition is done in the hip and thematically relevant format of many a Soderbergh movie, essentially giving what are static scenes of conversation a higher artistic cinematic polish. In that sense, Top Five is one of the better movies of the last few years to make a strong character out of New York City itself.
For any NYC residents (former or current), the film contains a cornucopia of iconic (or just famously trendy) landmarks captured in gorgeous frame, further heightened by the crisp, vibrant cinematography of Lars von Trier collaborator Manuel Alberto Claro (Melancholia, Nymphomaniac). Visually, Top Five is artistically above and beyond expectations of the genre, material (and really the director) – even if those heights are reached by standing on the shoulders of other greats.
The script by Rock is a surprisingly focused and well-executed single-day odyssey, which manages to balance sharp wit and very adult humor with deeper character drama and social commentary about everything from the entertainment industry, to modern journalism, to Rock’s primary target: race. In all of these areas, Rock provides actual insight and (at select points) shows tender sensitivity and vulnerability – even when the eclectic mix of subject matter doesn’t blend as smoothly as it should.
On a more basic level, Top Five is scores points for humor all across the board (wit, slapstick, raunch) and is generally really funny. There are one or two sequences that go “full Chris Rock” and push the comedy until it’s nearly spilling over-the-top, but given Rock’s mastery of his craft, these risky bits land precariously as great laugh out loud payoffs. Besides the maturity in directing and clarity of writing, what really keeps Top Five’s pulse going is its well-chosen cast and parade of guest cameos.
At the center, Rock manages to carry weight on his shoulders playing (what one imagines is) a version of himself – only a version that has been mashed-up with other famous comedians (Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan being two obvious allusions). Andre Allen both is and isn’t Rock, and the role achieves a tightrope middle ground between being a meta self-examination and the exploration/development of a legitimately interesting cinematic character. It’s a well designed and controlled performance.
Of course Woody Allen needs his Diane Keaton, and Rosario Dawson proves to be the perfect Keaton for this hip-hop flavored version of Allen’s New York. Gorgeous, witty, charming and with a hip and savvy air that only comes with being a real-life NYC resident, Dawson is just as effective in sequences double-dutching in her fashionista dress and (sensible) heels as she is trading witty barbs as a smart and sassy reporter.
The chemistry between Rock and Dawson is also convincing and playfully mischievous to watch. The movie finds ways between the comedic cracks to infuse both Andre and Chelsea with complex three-dimensional personalities, and backstory that actually feeds perfectly into both their mutual and respective developments. As the day drags on, and both parties gradually open themselves up to reveal deeper pains or secrets, it feels organic and natural that these two people would connect. Somewhere in the wit and hijinks, Rock reveals his capability to build a cute (and even slightly moving) love story.
Outside the laser-like focus on the principal two, we get a veritable parade of famous figures in supporting cast slots or cameos. Kevin Hart, J.B. Smoove, Gabrielle Union, Cedric the Entertainer, Tracy Morgan, and Leslie Jones have all been featured in marketing (and all manage to get great comedic moments to shine); however, Rock’s bench of friends goes much deeper than that to include famous icons, up and coming comedic talent, and even a few celebrity faces plucked from obscurity. It’s an experience best left unspoiled, so go in as fresh as you can.
In the end, Top Five is Chris Rock exceeding his own expectations and delivering a movie that proves he has a lane carved out for him as a feature-film architect. While he has a ways yet to go before finding a personalized directorial signature to match his unique voice as a writer, Top Five will definitely be looked at as the tipping point in Chris Rock’s filmmaking evolution.
Top Five is now playing in theaters. It is 102 minutes long and is Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use.