I’m not an expert in stand-up comedy, but I’ve certainly seen my share of comedy specials and I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of the elite names in the field. If someone asked me about my top five stand-up comedians dead or alive the list would probably include George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Louis C.K., and Bill Hicks in some order or another, but my number one slot would almost certainly be reserved for Chris Rock. I can certainly see why Carlin was more elegant, Pryor was more innovative, C.K. is more bold, and Hicks is more edgy, but no one has been able to make me laugh quite as hard as Chris Rock when he’s at his best. His “Bring the Pain” special is probably the most brilliant hour of stand-up ever committed to film and he’s continued to put out great specials every few years ever since. He’s a comic who can take hacky topics like the differences between men and women and through sheer force of personality spin them into gold and his observations about society continue to seem on point no matter how long he works.
There has of course been one major black spot on his resume and that’s his abysmal inability to translate his comedy into a film career. Chris Rock the film actor hasn’t even had the decency to make movies that are memorably terrible, for the most part they’ve all just been painfully forgettable. There have been some signs of progress, namely the 2007 film I Think I Love My Wife, which Rock also wrote and directed. That wasn’t a “good” movie per se. It wasn’t really all that funny and it didn’t really do much of anything, but it seem to signal that Rock was thinking about his career in the right way. It was, of all things, a remake of Éric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon and it was clearly meant to be a sort of Woody Allen-esque examination of a wealthy married person’s marriage troubles. It showed a softer side of Chris Rock and it didn’t really gel that well with his generally abrasive comedic persona. Still the movie was something of a signal and a mission statement which basically said that Rock wasn’t going to reduce himself to starring in some of the high concept nonsense that some of his comic peers have been starring in. He hasn’t always stuck to that, he’s certainly done supporting roles in dreck, but when he’s the star and chief creative force in something it’s usually going to at least be a valiant effort. His latest film is the fruit of this new attitude: a comedy called Top Five which makes it clear from moment one that it’s being made by someone who’s run out of fucks to give and who thinks that now is the time to make a film that can live up to his work in stand-up.
The Paramount marketing department has not had the easiest time trying to cut trailers and T.V. spots for this film, in part because it doesn’t really have a high concept to hang on. In the film Chris Rock plays a comedian/movie star named Andre Allen. This character certainly has Rock’s comedic voice, but biographically he’s more of a composite of Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and Kanye West. Essentially he’s what the real Chris Rock could have turned into if he hadn’t been “keeping it real” all these years. As the film opens, Allen is in a bit of a rut. He’s decided he’s done making his popular “Hammy the Bear” movies (which involve a bear who’s a police officer) and his newfound desire to be taken seriously has led him to make a rather dreadful looking movie about the Haitian slave uprising in which he seems completely out of place. He’s also engaged to a reality T.V. star for reasons that don’t seem to be entirely sincere, and he’s also struggling with a newfound sobriety. It’s against this that he agrees to be the subject of a New York Times profile to be written by Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), and much of the film shows how this interview goes as Brown follows Allen around as he shows her a day in his life.
Structurally Top Five clearly bears a certain resemblance to the “two people walk through a city talking” format that was popularized by Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. The film doesn’t completely adhere to that formula or lean on it as a high concept, but it’s certainly there and you can tell pretty early on that this is going to be a story about a courtship between Andre Allen this journalist, which is a bit odd considering that Allen is supposed to be getting married shortly after this interview is finished. Throughout the film Allen insists that his engagement to a reality star is sincere, but no one else in the movie takes this very seriously and neither does the film itself because his flirtations with Brown are never really treated as infidelities. This relationship arc might have seemed a little more subtle in the script, but Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson have a lot of chemistry, which is generally great for the movie but as a byproduct it makes this romantic arc a lot less subtle. Dawson generally excels at playing these kinds of smart and sexy dreamgirls and in some ways she actually steals the show here.
Beyond the two stars, Top Five is actually jam-packed with famous people and trendy actors in small roles and cameos. J.B. Smoove shows up as Allen’s manager/bodyguard, Cedric the Entertainer has a memorable role as a trill player from Huston that Allen meets in an extended flashback and in even smaller roles you see appearances by everyone from Kevin Hart to Tracy Morgan to Jerry Seinfeld. However, this is most definitely Chris Rock’s show and the comedy is plainly derived from his comic voice and sensibility. It’s been a good six or so years since Rock has released a comedy special, and I suspect that this is because he’s been channeling his best jokes into this screenplay rather than into his stand-up. You can hear a lot of this in Allen’s conversations with Brown, which range in topics from modern celebrity culture to race relations. This is not to suggest that the movie is completely given over to tangential dialogue, but it isn’t afraid to go a bit off topic in the name of a laugh either.
It probably isn’t saying much but Top Five is easily Chris Rock’s best movie to date. It’s made with a degree of energy and bite that has been missing from his previous film efforts. As much as I like the film though, it isn’t quite the homerun that I wanted it to be. The film’s cinematography is rather weak and digital-looking, which may have been an intentional decision made in order to give the film a bit more energy, but it often just looks cheap. Beyond that there are just a couple of other little missteps that bring the film down here and there. For instance, the fake films within the film do not really feel like pitch perfect parodies the way the fake movies in Funny People and Tropic Thunder did and there are a couple of times when the film pauses a little too long to go on comedic tangents. Still, this is a pretty funny and enjoyable movie and for Rock it seems to be the answer to the career problem that is being mirrored by the Rock’s onscreen alter ego: it’s smarter than the likes of “Hammy the Bear” but not pretentious in the way that “Uprize” is. It’s a fast paced, bitingly sarcastic and profane comedy, basically everything you want out of a Chris Rock product.
***1/2 out of Four