It has been a long time since Chris Rock could rightly claim that he was on top of the world. His string of HBO comedy specials in the 90’s and early 2000’s dovetailed into film career that never seemed able to get off the ground. He’s played second fiddle to Adam Sandler quite often, and he’s attempted to direct a few times to middling results. Indeed, he has barely been the force anyone would have expected him to be back in 1999. His newest effort, one that he both wrote and directed in addition to playing the starring role, seems to be a conscious response to his decade of indifference. Top Five takes the Rock everyone knows and uses that persona to go in a very different direction.
Rock plays Andre Allen, who is basically him under a different name, as he attempts to transition away from comedy with a starring role in a drama about a Haitian slave uprising. Flanked by his bodyguard/assistant Silk (JB Smoove), Top Five follows him on the day of the film’s release as he does press and prepares for his televised wedding to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union). Complicating matters is Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), a writer for the New York Times tasked with interviewing him for a profile piece, who joins him on his day out in New York City.
Top Five may present itself as a comedy, and it certainly angles for laughs, but Rock has much more on his mind. Its themes circle around the neuroses of a celebrity in cultural decline who may not entirely realize he is in decline, and takes quite a few shots at just about every aspect of the modern day 24/7 celebrity entertainment cycle. His life with his fiancee is a sham, his giant wedding a reality show stunt, and his years of playing soulless comedic characters on screen (namely Hammy the Bear, an anthropomorphic bear police officer) loom over him like an albatross around his neck. His risky new drama is a clear misstep both critically and commercially, and he cannot go anywhere on the street without hearing constant pleas for another Hammy the Bear movie. He is a man at his wits end, and he is only now realizing that.
To be honest, much of the thematic depths plumbed in Top Five has quite a bit of overlap with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman. Whereas Birdman always felt vindictive in the way it treated its audience and antagonists, Top Five takes a much warmer approach (though it is not without its teeth, especially when discussing reality TV), and it is the better for it. This is a romantic comedy at its core, and the chemistry between Rock and Dawson is exactly what it needs to be. Rock is not afraid to stick to formula when he needs to and break away from it when it is warranted.
Generally, it has a free-flowing feel, almost improvisational at spots but not messy or overstaying its welcome. There are many nearly Sorkin-esque walk and talks, all a joy to behold, as Andre and Chelsea move from appearance to appearance and get to the center of what makes them tick. When Rock cuts deep, whether through a sophisticated look at alcoholism and his reliance on the drink to convince himself he is funny or the horrors of a press junket or the omnipresence of video cameras in this day and age (complete with Bravo watermark in the bottom right corner for that little extra twist of the knife), he does so with elan and emotion, and engages on a personal level. These are the moments that shine the most; much of the plot machinations are contrived, especially one involving Chelsea’s phone, but they are more about getting the story to where Rock needs to get it in order to make his points than creating a narrative that will stand the test of time.
It is only when he gets away from these moments that Top Five seems to lose its way. The contrivances of the plot are difficult to ignore despite not being the focus of the film, and there is a thoroughly misguided flashback featuring Cedric the Entertainer that has some impact on Andre’s character but takes far too long to get there and falls into some of the cliche comedy holes that Rock otherwise deftly sidesteps. When it is on, Top Five is a genuinely funny and witty incisive comedy that manages to illuminate its themes with care and aplomb, painting an intriguing picture of a man on the brink, coddled by fame and losing his control and sense of self. It’s a story about unfair expectations and the dangers of convenience and the importance of personal connections no matter the circumstance. There is a tender heart at the core of this film, and Chris Rock cultivates it into full bloom. The jokes are not going to be what lingers after the credits roll. This is a good thing.