Chris Rock has always been a very hit-or-miss comedian. I’ve always liked his voice work in the Madagascar series and when he appears in films that, with the exception of possible improv work during filming, he doesn’t have a hand in writing (such as his roles in The Longest Yard and Lethal Weapon 4), his presence is felt with incredible enthusiasm. But when it comes to his standup act, and those films he writes and directs himself, something always seems to be amiss. I’m not sure if it’s his overall schtick, the way his mind works, or if he allows others to influence his decisions, it’s almost as if he’s unwilling to put as much energy into his craft as he does when he has no stake in the bottom line. His newest passion project, Top Five, hobbles on a similar crutch, feeling too important than it should be and failing to give the film room to just have fun.
But the movie is important, especially to Rock, who uses Top Five to explore issues that he himself just might be going through in his own career. I have great respect for any artist who’s willing to expose a lot of his discomfort or fears about not only his future as an artist, but the industry of celebrity as well. By making his main character, Andre Allen, a popular comedian trying to clean up his life and become more than simply someone to laugh at, Rock is playing on the idea that I’m sure a lot of comedians must deal with at some point in their careers — that moment when they want to prove they are more than just a one-note joke. It’s always tragic to know someone like Robin Williams or Richard Pryor, who devote their lives to bringing joy to so many people, suffers from drug or alcohol addiction because they themselves carry around so much pain that they need substances to stay alive. Rock says it best when Andre Allen explains the reason he’s trying to become a dramatic actor is because every comedic performance he’s ever given has been when he was drunk or high, and he just doesn’t think he can be funny without it. The message is really strong — and a heartfelt one at that — and it drives the narrative of the overall film quite well.
Where Rock stumbles is in the way he balances the dramatic with the comedic, which at times goes too far to counterbalance the other. The best comedies ever made have included strong dramatic elements (and some of the best dramas include perfectly-timed comedy) to help give the story some heart or relief from the monotony of the main genre. It becomes clear early on in Top Five that Rock isn’t sure if he’s making a comedy or a drama. The discussion remains focused on the desire to become a dramatic actor, yet because Rock is a comedian, I think he gets lost in the idea that he has to be funny all the time no matter what. So when he’s not being funny — or when he’s opening up and being real — the moments of pure comedy are taken to a new height and feel not only out of place within the bigger picture, but far too corny and cheesy to resonate with Allen grappling with his inner demons.
That isn’t to say that Rock doesn’t deliver on the comedic moments of the film, at least when they remain subtle and within the parameters of the dramatic world Rock has set up. The film centers around one wild day for Allen, who spends his time promoting his new dramatic film, “Uprize” (a story about a massive slave uprising in Haiti), that is constantly being upstaged by his looming nuptials to a young reality show starlet, Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). The press junkets and radio interviews are pure magic, displaying just the right amount of awkward and subtle comedy that balances out the “reality” of his bride-to-be and what goes into making her who she is. There’s also a terrific moment involving a cameo appearance by DMX that acts as a catalyst for Allen to figure out who he really is as an artist.
The glue that holds all of these scenarios together is Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a reporter from the New York Times who follows Allen around as he promotes his film. She is an intelligent woman, mother and journalist who wants nothing more than to learn the truth behind the image of this man who is clearly going through a crisis of identity — another aspect of the film that is dealt with in a very clever and subtle way. No one’s identity in this film (except for maybe J.B. Smoove’s fast-talking, big-girl loving bodyguard) is what it seems to be. Everyone is playing a part, representing the person they believe everyone wants them to be and hiding from the truth of who they really are, leading to a well-done twist at the end of the second act that turns everything around for Allen to jump-start his belief in himself. It fits nicely into the overall message of what Rock is trying to say, and he never tries to do more with it than he feels is necessary.
If it wasn’t for Rock’s insistence to pile on as many cameo appearances as he can fit into the little clown car of obnoxiousness, the movie would have had so much more strength than it ends up having. I understand Rock is very loyal to his friends, but in a movie that’s trying to speak on a much higher level than the simplicity of outrageous humor, do we really need to see Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, Tracey Morgan, Kevin Hart and just about every new black cast member of Saturday Night Live pop in for no other reason than to try and squeeze comedy in where it doesn’t even need to be? There is a fantastic moment where Erica is helping out with final preparations for the wedding and she walks by the star-studded seating arrangements (making it feel as if it was the Oscars of all weddings). Adam Sandler’s placard sits in the front row aisle seat. But not for long. Erica picks it up, switches a couple of placards around and then walks down the aisle with it. Where she takes it is anybody’s guess, but that moment is both funny and sweet, and gives just the right nod to Sandler and Rock’s relationship (and how some others might see it). If the film had more of this, and less over-the-top sex jokes and visuals, Top Five might have been just that in the year-end debate. Instead, it becomes nothing more a vehicle for a star trying to be an artist who has more to say than hiding behind a mask everyone loves.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Annie and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.