I like being surprised. I find that I’m not often surprised, but Top Five is exactly that…a pleasant surprise. Chris Rock offers a movie that is simultaneously funny, irreverent and thoughtful. Part social commentary, part comedic styling, it’s a movie that subtly delivers its message while it entertains.
Rock is comedian Andre Allen, a recovering alcoholic who has seen better days throughout his career. After three movies playing a character named Hammy the Bear, Allen ventures into serious movie making with a story about the Haitian slave rebellion and the resulting bloodbath against white slave owners. Struggling with both audience and critic’s seeming inability to accept his creative progression, he agrees to an in depth New York Times article to be written by reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) while doing promotion for the movie. The result? Woody Allen style, the two traverse across New York for the day talking about life, career, love and society. Rock’s character is grappling with a wide range of fears; fears of not being funny sober, fears of not being successful, fears that the best has come and gone. Contributing to his troubles and threating to overshadow his career, is his upcoming marriage to a reality star, which is to be filmed for a television special airing on Bravo. During his conversations with reporter Brown, also in recovery, he commits to rigorous honesty and opens himself to her inquiries. In doing so, he reveals much more about himself, to himself, than he expected.
For Top Five, Rock does triple duty as screenwriter, director and actor. As a screenwriter, Rock covers disparate topics such as fame, addiction, and love, and more or less does so without diluting any one part of the movie. He manages a social commentary about fame and our willingness to sell ourselves out for it. Reality television is an easy target, but so too is it the business of career minded actors. In a twist, he then delves into people’s response to fame and expectations of those famous, especially its affect on interpersonal relationships that once may have seemed straightforward. On where is the line between funny and cruel: when Dawson’s character asks Allen, “Why is it only funny when you say mean shit?” it considers what turns a benign sentiment into a heartless thought? When does making a joke about current social ills or politics go too far that it masks its message? On critics: the movie considers the apparent ease in which critics are willing to write disparaging comments about artists, especially when offered some form of anonymity. Whether a professional writer, film fan or blogger, technology has made it almost effortless to provide exhaustive commentary through a computer screen, and it allows just about anyone with an opinion the ability to write searing, often too personal, observations under the guise of being some kind of expert.
Beyond it’s social venturing, Top Five manages to present us with a solid story told through an array of characters, flawed, but human enough that we find them engaging. Abundant are cameos from Rock’s famous friends, but mostly the performances are spot-on. Rosario Dawson, whose character is given a robust subplot, delivers, especially against a large persona such as Chris Rock. Gabrielle Union portrays Andre Allen’s fiancé nuanced enough that instead of despising her, we understand and maybe even pity her. J.B. Smoove as Allen’s bodyguard/everything man is charming even as he is offensive. Of the cameos, Tracy Morgan is hilariously irreverent as Allen’s childhood friend, and it’s refreshing to see Jerry Seinfeld outside of his comfort zone. Rounding out the movie is Questlove’s stellar musical direction, which provides a powerful backdrop to the story.
Reportedly, Rock wrote Top Five in his trailer while filming Grown Ups 2, admirable for a writer, writing part time, in a trailer, on set. For those who loved him on Saturday Night Live, but have only enjoyed his work sporadically since, Top Five is worth the effort. It’s many things, but mostly it’s entertaining enough to justify the time and expense.