Chris Rock has been a movie star since the 90s in spite of his actual film career. Sure, he’s had some funny roles and a few hits, but the real reason that Rock has retained his status is because he remains one of the greatest standup comedians of his generation. The trouble is that Rock’s comedy is so honest, harsh, and delightfully profane that it never quite fit into the demands of mainstream comedy.
Even the movies that Rock directed (Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife) were watered down versions of his actual work. Thankfully, that’s finally changed. Rock’s latest movie Top Five is one that he wrote, directed, and stars in that was financed and produced entirely outside of the Hollywood system. Finally given free reign, the film serves up pure uncut Rock. When it premiered last fall at TIFF the laughter and applause was so defining that Paramount bought the movie for an unprecedented sum as a film fest acquisition. Now Top Five is coming out as a mainstream movie, and god willing the right audience will find it. If Rock’s legions of fans discover that his good stuff finally made it to the screen this low budget indie will make a mint, and Rock will be allowed to do this again. Let’s make it happen, people.
Taking liberal influence from Woody Allen, Nora Efron, Richard Linklater, Top Five is both a filthy, unconventional rom-com and one of those soul-searching showbiz satires that feel autobiographical even though they aren’t. Rock stars a beloved comic who found fame by cranking out crappy studio comedies, usually wearing a bear suit. He knew it was crap, but he liked the fame ,and he was a raging alcoholic who was barely lucid for most of his career. Now sober and about to launch his first dramatic feature about an obscure slave revolt that’s destined to fail, he’s selling it hard and about wed a vapid reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) the following week to keep his star bright. Trapped in New York on the junket circuit for his cinematic stinker, Rock agrees to an interview with a New York Times reporter who ends up being a beautiful, witty, and challenging woman (Rosario Dawson). What was supposed to be a puff piece turns into a daylong chat exploring everything about each others lives. Sparks fly and tensions mount. It’s a pressure cooker day for the star that could just as likely conclude with a nervous breakdown as a ‘love conquers all’ happy ending.
It’s not a bad concept for a Chris Rock vehicle. It’s a movie built on long Linklater-ian conversations that allows the comic’s knack for delivering searing monologues to shine as both a writer and performer. The episodic structure demands a variety of supporting comedic roles, and given how beloved Rock is in showbiz circles, the guy was able to stack the deck with scene stealing cameos to keep the pressure off. You’ll get to see Cedric The Entertainer get filthy in almost indescribable ways in a tale of hitting rock bottom (it involves a hauntingly hilarious stained mattress), JB Smoove chatting up anything with a booty as Rock’s best bud, Tracy Morgan almost stealing the show in a poignantly funny trip back to the old neighborhood, and Jerry Seinfeld and Adam Sandler going for a hard R in a bachelor party strip club sequence (watching Seinfeld interact with strippers is a singular joy that has been kept from audiences for far too long). There are even more ringers who pop up along the way, but spoiling those surprises would be unfair and this review has to end eventually. What’s fantastic about watching all the famous faces steal scenes is the way in which Rock reframes all of them within his harsh comedic voice and show off skills that they rarely get to execute in mainstream entertainment. It’s both a pressure reliever as a lead and a challenge to get laughs against the stiffest competition possible. As a writer it’s generous. As an actor it males his work harder, yet Rock still comes out on top.
Despite all of the show-stopping diversions, Top Five is very much the Chris Rock show. The bulk of the film is comprised Rock and Dawson shooting the shit, and it’s delightful. Rock delivers a series of knock-out punch comic monologues and even a little pained drama. Dawson sits back for most of it, but as the film wears on and turns into a love story, she becomes the co-lead. Their chemistry is palpable, and thankfully Rock’s writing is too strong for his flick to devolve into sappiness in the third act.
That’s not to say that the movie is perfect by any means. It is a little slight by design and occasionally the writing can be a little on the nose (especially near the end), but Rock never dwells on his moments of melodrama or Hollywood fantasy and delivers enough shock and awe comedy to easily counter balance the cheese. He proves to be a talented filmmaker, delivering a dialogue-driven movie that feels as cinematic as possible (along with more than a little help from Lars Von Trier’s regular cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro).
Is Top Five a masterpiece? Well no, but it doesn’t try to be. The film might represent Rock’s most ambitious movie project to date and one that delivers, yet he’s also wise enough to know better than to aim for the unattainable. As writer, director, and actor, Rock played to his strengths and delivered an ideal movie vehicle for his talents. Top Five might not be Chris Rock’s directorial debut, but it is certainly his breakout picture that will hopefully kick off a new chapter of his career as a filmmaker. If you’re even remotely a fan of Rock’s comedy, rush out and buy a ticket. He won’t be able to do this again unless it’s a hit, and Grown Ups 3 is still a distinct possibility. We can’t allow that to happen.