He may be one the greatest stand up comics of the last fifty years, but it would be fair to say that Chris Rock’s fortunes in the realms of cinema have been extremely mixed at best. In fact, with the exception of the very enjoyable documentary Good Hair from 2009, I would go so far to say that the last truly good picture in which Rock was involved was 1999’s Dogma. Skip sixteen years and many animation voice overs and forgettable comedies later we have Top Five, a passion project written, starring and directed by the man himself and seemingly an attempt to move in to a more intellectually stimulating and credible phase of his career. The question is, did he succeed?
In many ways, yes. Top Five could be described as a cross between Birdman and Richard Linklater’s ‘Before‘ trilogy, telling the day in the life story of movie star Andre Allen (Chris Rock) as he is shadowed for a profile piece in the New York Times by reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). A recovering alcoholic and stalwart of silly comedy action films, Allen is struggling to convince the public of his new sober and more serious persona, opting for more serious roles and shying away from his infamous stand up comedy routines. The narrative proceeds as a dialogue heavy journey through New York City as Andre and Chelsea butt heads and build bonds on a number of issues including his career frustrations, their shared alcoholism, his impending marriage to a vacuous reality TV star and broader issues including race, music and relationships. Inevitably, the pair begin to see more in one another than they had expected and though the arc of the plot is predictable, the route to the expected conclusion is filled with humorous and enjoyable moments. Clearly taking inspiration from the fast talking partnerships of Woody Allen’s best work, the audience become invested in the conversations of the two leads, and these more sensitive, quiet passages are bound together with bursts of louder, more abrasive comedy, most enjoyably when Andre takes Chelsea back to his childhood neighbourhood to meet his family and friends including Tracy Morgan, Sherri Shepherd and Leslie Jones. The film runs at a pleasantly brisk pace, condensing a full day in to one hundred minutes without feeling rushed, and though a couple of more vulgar, gross out comic moments don’t quite fit in with the more relaxed, realistic tone of the piece, overall it provides solid entertainment and a positive departure from some of Rock’s previous offerings. However, one aspect of the Top Five that does slightly dampen my praise for it is the continued thread of problematic sexual and gender politics throughout the narrative. At several points during the film female extras are used for no other purpose than to belittle or to objectify, and this happens in a manner than neither furthers the plot of makes the audience laugh. These clumsy and ill advised moments run the risk of ruining the more sincere and intelligent work that Rock is attempting to do, and though it doesn’t fundamentally skew my opinion of the picture as a whole, these few unnecessary and cheap moments do bring it down a level.
Much like Michael Keaton’s relationship with his character in Birdman, one gets the sense that there is a certain amount of truth in Chris Rock’s portrayal of Andre, a former ‘class clown’ type celebrity who is now striving for something more substantial. Given that the audience are used to either the comedian’s outlandish stand up presence or his larger than life voice over work of late, Rock’s performance in Top Five is both refreshing and genuinely good. Having both written and directed the film, it is clear to see that Rock is comfortable in this character and he proves to be a flawed yet effortlessly likeable protagonist. Providing equal enjoyment is his co-star Rosario Dawson as reporter Chelsea, who gives a sassy and confident performance and proves to be more than a match for Andre when it comes to their numerous debates. The chemistry between Rock and Dawson feels authentic and is really enjoyable to watch. One of the key challenges in fast paced, short time frame films of this nature is getting the audience to believe in such a quick connection, but in Top Five this is achieved brilliantly and being invested in the pairing from the start allows the audience to enjoy and connect with more of the wider plot points of the film. Supplementing these fine leading performances are enjoyable comedic cameos from Tracy Morgan and Leslie Jones, and the film even boasts a slightly surreal section involving cameos from Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld as exaggerated versions of themselves.
Overall, Top Five is a big step in the right direction for Chris Rock in this new, more considered phase of his career. Though there is some light cause for concern with regards to a few of the sexual and gender politics related issues of the plot, the film manages to display enough real humour and comedy to counteract these mistakes and the picture as a whole provides an enjoyable one hundred minutes of smart, trenchant entertainment. Not necessarily a film to concern the awards bodies, but certainly a pleasurable watch and certainly one I would recommend.