Chris Rock has been appearing in films since the 80s, but they’ve rarely ever managed to capture what it is that makes him special. Much like Richard Pryor before him, Hollywood producers saw a brilliant, honest, and vicious stand-up comic and cast Rock in mugging slapstick roles unsuited to his talents. Even the few movies that Rock directed himself (Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife) featured him trying to do something a little different that was never quite as effective. Thankfully, the third time proved to be the charm for Rock as a director.
Working in the Woody Allen mode of making a personal comedy as writer/director/star that isn’t autobiographical, he’s playing a version of the Chris Rock persona, just not Chris Rock and finally getting a chance to be just as funny on film as he’s always been on stage. That he invited all of his funniest and most famous friends along to the party is just comedy insurance that pays off in a big bad way.
Rock plays a comic turned movie star who is four years sober and desperate to be taken seriously. His latest movie is an attempt at slipping into drama through a serious epic about a slave revolution that is already being demolished by critics before release and he’s just about to marry a particularly shallow reality TV star . His best buddy/assistant (JB Smoove, who really should be in every movie) talks him into accepting an interview with a New York Times reporter. She ends up being played by Rosario Dawson, so obviously sparks fly. The film is essentially a feature length conversation between the two characters, with stop offs in Rock’s old neighborhood (cue Tracy Morgan cameo), digressions into memory (cue Cedric The Entertainer cameo), and Rock’s over-produced bachelor party (cue Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Whoopi Goldberg cameos). Rock’s character goes through a bit of a soul-crushing, life-redefining day but the film never strays a more than a minute or two from a laugh. As a filmmaker, he knows where his real strengths are.
Rock the director proves to be surprisingly strong this time out. It might not be an ambitious movie visually, but keeps things from ever feeling too stagey or talky despite being a film driven almost entirely by dialogue. The words Rock and the other actors spit out are loaded with venom, commentary, and comedy. His screenwriting has finally caught up with his stand up and there’s at least one major laugh here every few minutes. It certainly doesn’t help that he’s stacked the deck with comedic all around him and he gives them all a perfect thing to do (the scenes with Jerry Seinfeld in a strip club are pretty fantastic. Good for Rock for making that happen). The central relationship with Dawson is sweet and their relationship well observed without stretching into the cornball. Top Five is certainly a simple movie, but one Rock gets so right and infuses with so much of his personality that it feels like he’s managed to emerge as the best comedic filmmaker to ever cast Chris Rock in a lead role. Hopefully it’s only the beginning of a string of films from Rock, because he’s finally cracked the code and might even get better from here. (Phil Brown)
Saturday, September 13, 9:00pm, Ryerson