Top Five feels like a passion project for Chris Rock, so it has that going for it. Written and directed by Rock, it has his voice and it feels like he’s got something to say. It’s just that he keeps contradicting his message for cheap laughs. He should be able to develop the humor to support his message, but at least if it’s going to be an interruption, make it a highbrow interruption.
The opening scene feels like Rock doing a standup act. Andre Allen (Rock) is a celebrity comedian trying to make a serious movie about the Haitian Revolution, but people just want him to be funny again. He’s doing an interview for the Times (New York I assume, but maybe the generic Times) on the opening day of his film, while his fiance (Gabrielle Union) plans their wedding before her Bravo reality show cameras.
So before we even know Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) is the reporter and not the fiance, Andre is doing president jokes. I love that his comedy franchise is a three part Hammy the Bear series in which he plays a police officer bear in a practical bear suit, not CGI. It’s also funny that everyone wants him to do Hammy 4. Franchise Fred thinks Birdman 4 and Hammy 4 would be a great double feature, but it’s just a coincidence they both came out this year.
I would love to see a powerful comedian explore what motivates one to pursue drama. Every time a Robin Williams, Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey happens, everyone is surprised. How many does it take to know that comedians can do both? Rock undercuts this exploration as soon as we see the fake movie Uprize. He is hamming it up so much that it looks like a spoof of a comedian doing a serious movie, which could also be valid but only if the movie is hitting back hard at pretentious actors, which Top Five is not. Even the other actors in scenes from Uprize are giving real performances. Only Andre is overdoing it.
Top Five crams in all of Rock’s observations about reality TV, cell phones/technology, critics/reporters/the media and more, and they’re all worthwhile observations. That’s why Rock’s standup remains so poignant and biting. Sometimes it’s a stretch to shoehorn it into the story of Andre Allen.
Some of the more inspired moments include the weirdness and vulnerability of Andre’s story of hitting bottom, the opposing views of the black and white media, a scene involving hot sauce on a tampon that could usurp Jason Biggs humping a pie if it stands the test of time, and the novelty of Jerry Seinfeld in a scene that he would probably only do for one of his comedy buddies.
That’s a lot of good stuff, as well as a respectful portrayal of alcoholism recovery. I actually wish Andre’s feelings towards comedy were not so tied to his alcoholism, because the exploration of a misguided career change would be worth exploring on its own. But as themes go, it is also valid and the link between talent and substance abuse may need more light shed on it than I realize. I’ll salute Rock for that.
Some of the jokes aren’t as funny as the rest of the audience seemed to think they were. Andre ends up doing some “men are like this, women are like that” material. His speculation on where Tupac might be today is pretty clever though. For a movie trying so hard to challenge the notion of what we expect from celebrities, I was surprised how many times Top Five followed the conventional Hollywood formula. That makes it an entertaining conundrum, with enough laughs to be entertaining regardless, but we don’t have to settle for regardless. “Regardless” is so bittersweet. We should have next level scathing commentary with regards as well.