by Adam Riske
Top Five is Chris Rock’s best movie in a long time and one my favorite comedies of the year. It feels like the real Chris Rock and not that imposter Chris Rock who stars in those misbegotten Grown Ups and Madagascar movies. Good for him. Top Five is a great showcase for Rock’s edgy and incisive wit. Perhaps the key is that Rock is the writer, director and star of this movie and there seems to be little to none of the usual interference (though it might be of his own doing) of his daring, yet somehow silly and sweet, sense of humor. He’s not just churning it out this time. He has something new to say.
I was starting to worry about Chris Rock. I remember watching his HBO stand-up specials and just being in awe of his rapid fire delivery and the number of times he was able to make jokes land. I saw his comedy show a couple of times live and on both occasions I wanted the show to stop because I was actually in pain from laughing so much for so long. That Chris Rock has never shown up in a movie (the closest he came was in what I still think is the very funny Head of State); more often it’s the tone deaf ad libs I remember when it comes to his film career. I mean, do you remember him in Lethal Weapon 4? His later attempts to stretch himself in movies like 2 Days in Paris or I Think I Love My Wife were better, but still poor representations of the brilliant work he was capable of doing. Finally, with Top Five, Rock seems loose, assured and willing to take some chances.
A highlight of Top Five is its cast. Each scene is peppered with funny and talented people and, in most cases, they all score laughs. This is a very funny movie. In fact, there’s a cameo towards the end of Top Five (while Andre Allen is in a holding cell) that made me laugh harder than anything else in a movie this year. Part of it is due to my affection for this particular actor (making the cameo) and part of it is because of how batshit loony (thanks JB) the scene is. And there a lot of those types of scenes in Top Five. Another example is a flashback sequence featuring Cedric the Entertainer that has to be seen to be believed. It’s silly, over-the-top and altogether great. But the real co-MVP of this movie is the luminous Rosario Dawson, who makes every movie she appears in better. She’s incapable of striking a false note and I really liked her interplay with Rock. They don’t share the greatest chemistry in the world (Rock has been quoted as saying he’s “the last guy you would expect in a romantic movie” and there’s a reason he’s saying that) but their romance in sweet. Their scenes, walking and talking around New York City, are undoubtedly influenced by Woody Allen (who Rock has cited as an inspiration). I could watch the two of them all day long. I also think some of the new quality material in Top Five owes a debt to Rock’s frequent collaborator Louis C.K. Both the show Louie and Top Five have a similar free flowing, vignette type of structure.
I have a few minor quibbles about the movie, but it’s not enough to sway me away from recommending it. The messages are somewhat mixed as, in the end, it seems to be arguing against drumming to your own beat in lieu of sticking to what works even if you feel the need to stretch. But then, at times, the movie is saying to do what makes you happy and not do what other people want from you (or expect you to do). It’s a little muddled. The story beats are somewhat pedestrian, but it almost doesn’t matter because the dialogue is so fresh. Rock also is not the best at seeding material in his movie. There are elements (Cinderella, for example) that you know will come up later in the story. It’s a bit heavy handed. I also would have liked more time dedicated to discussion about rap. The conversations that do happen (“Who are your top five?”) are somewhat cursory and undercooked. Why are these rappers in their top five? I find that dialogue fascinating and wish there was more of it, especially since Rock has described himself in the past as a rap comedian in the same vain that he describes Bill Cosby as being a jazz comedian.
Chris Rock is back!
Note: I also have to give kudos to Chris Rock for ending the movie on the right shot. So often movies blow that last moment and this one strikes the perfect note.