Chris Rock has his mind exactly where the world of comedy needs it to be. As if his recent interviews haven’t proved that the man knows exactly what audiences want and need to hear, Top Five is right on the money. It’s a smart, sharp comedy that never comes off as insincere, and it’ll have audiences laughing their way through from start to finish.
Top Five is the kind of film that will pull comparisons to Louie for its look at a stand-up comedian outside of his comedy realm, but it’s entirely different and special in its own way. Rock’s character, Andre Allen, is a comedian turned film star, whose career is so busted up after a ton of failed projects (including one that features a bear cop), that he can’t manage to get anyone interested in his dramatic passion project about slave revolts in another country. As he tries to gain some publicity and love for his film, he’s subjected to an all-day interview with a newspaper reporter, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), and a reality-TV star fiancé (Gabrielle Union) who wants to broadcast their wedding live.
Over a decade ago, Chris Rock was tapped into the cultural mind with Head of State and it’s clear he remains there with Top Five. The film, which opens on a discussion on how much things have, or haven’t, progressed, is actually surprisingly progressive and down-to-earth from the get-go. It features a diverse cast that drops as many jokes about race as they do interesting social discussions, characters who are at shitty places in life but aren’t shamed for that fact, and (most importantly to me although many will likely ignore this fact) a bisexual woman of color, who is a single mother, as the co-lead of the film.
In fact, Rosario Dawson delivers one of the most nuanced performances in comedy this year for a female lead. Accompanied by Rock’s ace writing, she and the film do more to aptly depict the strained relationship between a former-actor/filmmaker and a critic/reporter than most works have managed (I’m looking at your trite nonsense Birdman). Sure, the way the NYT interview plays out may not be the most true-to-life situation, but Allen’s interactions with a cavalcade of white radio hosts is as uncomfortable as it is hilarious, especially when he says things like, “I fake kill white people.”
When it’s not slipping into a couple of predictable beats in its typically solid script, Top Five is consistent at delivering solid laughs in ways both subtle and blatant. While most of the comedy is delivered through simple dialogue between characters, there’s a lot of gold to be found in the visuals that Rock dishes out, especially in the flashback sequences found throughout. While I won’t spoil the bulk of them, the telling of Allen’s rock bottom story is one of the most laugh-out-loud worthy moments in film this year, with pillows, breakfast in bed, adventurous hoes, Freddie Jackson’s “You Are My Lady,” and pictures of George W. Bush all in the mix.
As for his direction, it’s a nice little mix of polished, slick camerawork and a certain cinéma vérité feel that some might call inconsistent, but works in its depiction of New York. It’s because of that fact that I find comparisons to Woody Allen a little off-beat. With its focus on writing and a struggling artist, the comparison is apt, but Rock has a completely different side of New York City to showcase that Allen never could. It’s not an intellectual upper-class white man world, it’s a genuine NYC that gives audiences a taste of what real people like and how they live.
Every time someone asks another person about their top five hip-hop artists – with Dawson’s response being the best because it features the immaculate Salt-N-Pepa at the top – it feels as though we’re simply watching a documentary of sorts about these characters on the screen. Rock never wastes an opportunity with a single one of his actors, no matter how small or large the role, and he tries to make every interaction count.
It’s because of that dedication to rigorous honesty that Top Five is such a great comedy and why Chris Rock is undoubtedly at the top of his game, even though his character so clearly isn’t.
Directed by Chris Rock; written by Chris Rock; starring Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, and Leslie Jones; 101 minutes.
Top Five is now playing in theaters everywhere.