Chris Rock is an intelligent, highly perceptive, hilarious dude. He is one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time. You see his brilliance in his forgotten proto-“Chappelle’s Show” talk show “The Chris Rock Show,” and insight explodes out of him whenever he talks to a reporter, as recent, poignant interviews with Rolling Stone and New York magazine’s Vulture, in which Rock spoke on the Obama presidency, the 1 percent, and racial bias in Hollywood, illustrate.
As an actor and filmmaker, however, Rock’s comedic gifts and political wisdom have made for memorable performances and characters, but haven’t quite added up to a “total package” his fans can unequivocally stand behind. There have been some bright spots along the way: his television show “Everybody Hates Chris”; the documentary “Good Hair”; and personal Hollywood movies such as “Head Of State” and “I Think I Love My Wife.” Even there, though, the themes and jokes don’t land as frequently as they should and you’re left with the feeling that the time would be better spent watching one of his comedy specials.
“Top Five,” clearly Rock’s most personal and lofty film, is also the first that feels vital. Starring, written by, and directed by Rock, “Top Five” spends 24 hours with Andre Allen, an A-list comedian with a drinking problem who has risen to the upper echelon of American celebrity only to face the dilemma that now he must be taken seriously. (Allen is best known by an adoring public for his blockbuster turn as Hammy The Bear). So while promoting “Uprize,” a film about the uprising of Haitian slaves, a desperate yet flaccid play for legitimacy that just isn’t very good, he also faces an impending televised wedding to his reality-star fiancee (played by Gabrielle Union). Serving as the “will they or won’t they?” love interest and instrument of exposition is Rosario Dawson, who plays a New York Times reporter assigned to profile Allen in the midst of all this luxury chaos.
The first 20 minutes or so of “Top Five” has the look and feel of the Chris Rock films that have preceded it—another one that is surely a noble effort but meanders and finds Rock’s limited acting chops strained. But once the bits and pieces of exposition are out of the way, “Top Five” hits its stride, revealing itself as Rock’s funniest and most complete film. The semi-autobiographical nature of the story may help here. Rock seems more at ease, wearing his character like a loose garment, and the film is more enjoyable as a result. At times, that ad-libbed feel we’re all used to after Judd Apatow’s reign of terror takes over, but Rock is a great and playing himself and clearly in his element, so it works.
Although white critics will reach for the few black films they’re familiar with and compare “Top Five” to them (or maybe they’ll mention Woody Allen), “Top Five” is actually lot like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” the mega-artsy, yet super-satisfying Michael Keaton-starring riff on the politics of theater, the banality of arts criticism, and the incessant hunger of the cinematic industrial complex. While “Birdman” was surely more autobiographical than Chris Rock’s dramedy—with Keaton playing a former superhero movie actor hoping to gain credibility—the connection is there and Rock’s take is more casual and conversational than showoff-y and virtuosic. “Top Five,” with its mostly black cast, is able to play with the same themes as “Birdman” without feeling watered down—poisoned, even—when compared to “white” movies (or as I prefer to call them, movies).
Black foolishness does not overwhelm here, and even the film’s most avid practitioner of said foolishness, Cedric The Entertainer, is here to set up one of the bigger laughs in the film. I’m not gonna pretend the film didn’t come to a screeching halt when Cedric’s lean-cup-swilling Houston hustler character shuffled onto the screen, but the payoff in his flashback sequence is well worth it, a genuinely hilarious reminder of the danger of films (or critics) taking themselves too seriously. And “Top Five” also handles Allen’s drinking problem and recovery much better than a lot of films, or at least as well as a film that’s not strictly about addiction can handle such a loaded topic. Wisely, it tackles the myth of whether one’s gift is “lost” as a result of sobriety, insight if not drawn from Rock’s own experience, then definitely from comedians who’ve come and gone after living “tears of a clown” existences onstage and off.
So, even though it’s through the lens of celebrity, it’s nice to see black people kind of just being people here. Not career sufferers, not shuck-and-jive masters, not vehicles for a Christian agenda (cc: Tyler Perry), just people, subtly sketched out, dealing with their shit. And after the hacked Sony emails gave insight into why Hollywood’s studio system and its homogenized byproduct are as insidiously whitewashed as we thought they were, the industry owes black audiences more movies like “Top Five.”