Top Five, a smart, yet admittedly crude laugh-a-minute written, directed, and starring Chris Rock, opens with a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a classic Richard Linklater (or, for that matter, Julie Delpy, who Rock starred in 2012s 2 Days In Paris with) walker-and-talker. Andre Allen (Rock) and Chelsea Brown (a fantastic Rosario Dawson) wander down the streets of New York, bantering back and forth about the current race and political climate with a comedic edge.
“I’m sick? I’m the one who’s voting for the Mexican, lesbian, handicapped president!”
Andre says. At around a minute and a half long, the scene is a fantastic entrance point for the film, one that catches you off guard because of how completely the opposite it is from what you expect from Rock.
Like many performers who have begun their careers in stand-up comedy and have never deviated far from that, Rock has an inescapable schtick that makes him rather love-or-hate. It’s difficult to see him as anything but Marty the zebra in the Madagascar movies or, well, Chris Rock, his previous directorial efforts, long forgotten studio comedies Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife playing into this comfort zone well. Top Five may not necessarily be that far out of Rock’s previous sensibilities, it’s like if Rock has been filtered through Linklater, making an intelligent film about celebrity, sobriety, and modern culture that is also riotously funny.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a 40-something comedian who is trying to become a serious actor after becoming sober. His first ‘serious movie’ has just opened, a drama he directed about the Haitian Revolution, but he’s getting more media attention for his upcoming wedding to his reality star fiancee (Gabrielle Union). “I don’t feel funny anymore!” he says multiple times throughout the day the film unfolds within, as he travels around New York City with Chelsea Brown (Dawson), a New York Times writer who is interviewing him about his changing career. As he goes about this day, going to various press commitments where he tries to sell the movie that no one is interested in because he’s not ‘being funny’; visits his family; and goes to his alcohol filled, highly produced bachelor party despite his long-time sobriety; he gradually opens up to Chelsea, who is skeptical of his current image and career trajectory.
It’s like a backstage Before Sunrise. Starting once the sun has come up and ending before it rises again, characters wander around, listing their top five (where the title comes from) favourite rappers, telling anecdotes of funny moments and regrets in past relationships (“everything means something!” Chelsea says in the first scene), dropping cultural references that influenced them as they walk and talk and muse about life and relationships and the media. It’s continuous, hitting the ground running with a breathless scene that updates the audience on all they need to know about Andre, and not stopping for a dialogue-heavy, hilarious, but sometimes poignant 100 minutes.
Hitting his stride in terms of pacing, jokes flying (and landing!) left, right, and centre, Rock creates a film with impressive momentum that is fantastically entertaining. Characters swiftly and naturally enter and leave the circle that Andre and Chelsea create, Rock thankfully fully aware that he doesn’t need to be front and centre the whole time (plenty of the jokes come from the supporting cast), despite the movie being a meta-movie about the film itself.
But I guess what impressed me the most about Top Five is that it well and truly caught me off-guard and surprised me. If I had to find one thing that has been a downer about my increased involvement in film these past few years, it’s that I’m very rarely surprised. Having followed films through production to festival premieres and subsequent release, hearing general responses despite not reading reviews, I have a sense of if and what I’m going to like about a film from the beginning. It’s a good thing, because it rarely means I’m disappointed (in fact, the only true disappointment I’ve had was Asia Argento’s Incompresa last year), but it also means that a film is rarely unexpected for me. It has lost that element of discovery that once existed, that delightful surprise of walking into a cinema and finding that a film is blissfully unlike what you were expecting, and is just that much better as a result. Comedies, good comedies, not forgettable cash grabs that get churned out every few months by studios, are difficult to find these days. Real, guilt free, downright hilarious films, where tears roll down your face from laughing so hard, which Top Five definitely is.
Rock may be criticizing the very system that would enable him to make a film like this, laughing from an ivory tower when he used to partake in what the film takes down, but Top Five, is concerned with providing full-bodied, thoughtful entertainment that lasts beyond in-the-moment laughs. Juggling conflicting comedic and dramatic narrative threads, Rock displays a surprising amount of skill and effortlessness in his witty and finger-on-the-pulse film. Whether Andre has succeeded in being considered a serious artist or not, the jury is still out on, but it’s undeniable that Rock himself has been successful.