Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Chris Rock
Stars: Adam Sandler, Anders Holm, Cedric the Entertainer, Chris Rock, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove, Jay Pharoah, Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, Michael Che, Rosario Dawson, Sherri Shepard, Tracy Morgan, Whoopi Goldberg
Released: 8th May 2015 (UK)
Never have I been a huge fan of Chris Rock. I don’t mind the guy, but his rise to fame as an edgy stand-up comedian was during a time in my life when I would never have been allowed to watch his specials. The Rock I know is the guy who did a voice for Eddie Murphy in Doctor Dolittle and who made Pootie Tang, Down to Earth and a handful of other forgettable comedies in the early part of the new millennium. Of course, as I’ve grown I’ve been able to gain a better perspective on the history of this spectacularly famous comic who, despite starring in such drab as What To Expect When You’re Expecting and two Grown Upsfilms, maintains a most credible reputation as a top comic performer and a stand-up comedian with real intelligence and raw bite. While Rock’s acting talent has clearly always been limited it is the intellect that provides his introspect that sets him apart. He knows how to tell a story, even if he isn’t the most suitable to convey it and he understands that. So, what does he do? He goes ahead and writes a film about himself, perfect for him to lead and why not? You write what you know and as a comedian you speak the truth, you talk about everything and pull off the band aids and with that mentality Rock has put it all on the line. As a comedian maybe wanting, trying even to make a transition himself, what better way for him to plead his case? Like in Birdman Rock purposefully casts himself in the lead role of a man who mirrors his own real life experiences, but also like the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film this isn’t just about a jaded actor trying to make a hit play or movie, but more about the legacy they want to leave. In talking specifically about Top Five, Rock is interested in discussing the kind of ego that comes along with being a personality that people become a fan of and keeping that personality in check so that the ego doesn’t balloon that personality to something that’s no longer valuable while still feeding the surrogate what they need from it. Ego is a disease, something you can become addicted to and as much as Rock lets out his frustrations on everything from reality TV to Tyler Perry movies this is ultimately about satisfying his own ego in hopes of doing more of what he wants while keeping fans of his personality interested by relying on what he’s best known for.
Andre Allen is a version of Chris Rock or moreover even closer to someone like his idol Eddie Murphy or Mike Meyers who have both pigeon-holed themselves as certain characters and only found success in movies by making sequels with those well-known, well-established characters. Allen has found success starring as a man dressed up in a bear costume who is apparently a cop of some sort and is called Hammy thus giving way to his signature catch phrase, “It’s Hammy Time!” This nonsensical, cheap comedy has spawned two sequels and Allen can’t bring himself to do it anymore. He has sworn off stand-up while making strides to be taken more seriously by doing a film about a Haitan slave revolt. The few clips of the film we see don’t make it look very promising, but Allen is all about it as Top Five takes place on the day the film is set to be released. Not coincidentally, it is the same weekend he is set to marry his reality-star girlfriend Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). Allen doesn’t seem all that interested in his well-publicized wedding, but more in promoting his film despite the fact most people he speaks with just want to make Hammy the Bear jokes and won’t take his serious, seriously. Cue Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) a writer from the New York Times who is set to interview Andre and is able to break past the comic’s facade and into the rigorous truth of his plight to figure out who exactly he is. Brown is afforded the chance to spend the day with Allen, going from interviews to family functions, slowly peeling back the layers of a man she only thought she knew because of what she’d seen in his movies. At one point she meets a large portion of cousins, ex-girlfriends and siblings that include Sherri Shepherd, Tracy Morgan and essentially every African American on SNL at the moment sans Kenan Thompson. As Allen deals with his pending nuptials, the box office and the reception to his film he and Chelsea form something of an unexpected bond (to them at least, we see it coming all along) thus giving our protagonist fresh inspiration and an opportunity to get to a place where it finally feels comfortable to just be him.
Like Allen, Rock knows people want and expect him to be funny and so he has positioned this all-star comedy cast with the hook of the film essentially being him making his own biopic as such. One expects to walk into a comedy with Top Five, but more often than not the insight the film offers is steeped much more in the inherent drama of life while Rock allows the comedic elements to bleed through, as they tend to do anyway. Some may be disappointed to hear that the film isn’t non-stop laughter or a flat-out comedy, but what is made clear is that it’s not about comedy or drama, but simply about life and trying to make it the best way you know how and in this case-the best way Andre Allen knows how. Like I said, Rock never made the seamless transition to movie star from top-flight comedian because he isn’t necessarily a good actor. His performances have always felt stilted and his delivery so timed as if he were still standing on stage delivering the jokes rather than interacting in conversation. Under the guise of his own dialogue though Rock is able to make Andre Allen a more fully realized character that, more than anything, wants to let us in on the vicious nature of being a comedian. People expect funny, that’s already been said, but they expect it all the time. There isn’t a scene in the film where Rock is walking outside and someone doesn’t yell, “Hammy!” at him. A scene from the trailers where Allen records a promo for Sirius radio has the engineer asking him to do a second take, but to simply “make it funner” as if Allen can take nothing and make something out of it simply by reading it goofily and the audience knowing the source from which it comes. It is the vicious nature that comes with one not only becoming prolific, but prolific in one area to the point they themselves believe that is all that makes them up. In the case of Allen, he is dealing with the fear of not being able to truly be funny anymore because he constantly hears from the people around him that he’s not as funny as he was when he drank or when he did drugs. Allen has been sober for four years, a point of pride for him, but misunderstanding in his career as nothing he ever did that’s now considered great was done when he wasn’t messed up.
From the outside looking in, one could place the blame as much on nostalgia as he does his drinking. The part every person who aspires to make it big loves the most is the rise, those moments when you mount your reasoning for being considered a force to be reckoned with before you’ve officially “arrived”. My guess is Andre never feels he’ll be able to top the stand-up he delivered when he was younger because their is a nostalgic factor to it, of being from a certain time and crucial period in his life that could never be recaptured or duplicated. Everyone around him makes excuses for why he’s not as funny, but in all actuality he surely is only in a different way. In having to figure this out for himself the interesting revelations that come around are that of Andre’s approach to history and how everything is seen through the lens of the entertainment industry. It gives the character a sense of self-involvement while offering the insight of what it’s like to be in a comedians mind who has to operate as part of a culture, but be able to relay to the masses common experiences so as to keep the laughs coming. As a writer, Rock lends the story this insight and no doubt pulls heavily from his own experiences while combining them with articulate arguments for how he feels on a laundry list of topics. As a director it is clear he draws on the inspiration of New York influenced filmmakers like Woody Allen. Rock makes sure to make the atmosphere and the city as much a character of his film as anyone else and because of that the photography flourishes, opening up the world and subsequently the man to any number of possibilities. Working with actors, Rock pulls out what feel like effortless performances. Dawson at first seems an odd choice to play the romantic lead given she and Rock don’t necessarily go together in an aesthetic sense, but they play off one another naturally and create a convincing affection for one another. The endless cameos are nothing short of fun while Union is especially great in her one big scene. Her character is completely backwards and everything that is wrong with the epidemic of celebrity, but she delivers. The entire film delivers and it’s good to see Rock settling in to such a role, but DMX almost steals the entire show.