Monday, December 15, 2014

Review: Top Five

by Adam Riske
The slump is over.

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.
The plot in brief: Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is forced to spend the day with a profile writer from the New York Times named Chelsea (Rosario Dawson) while he is out promoting his latest movie and upcoming reality TV special. As they wander around New York, Andre and Chelsea open up to one another as Andre looks for what will make him happy and to regain his comedic stride.

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.
Chris Rock has done himself a service in creating the avatar that is Andre Allen. There’s rooting interest to the character – he’s a good guy and we want to see him happy. He is a vain movie star but overall we, the audience, can tell he’s not spoiled he’s just grumpy and sad. The character serves the subtext of commenting on Rock’s career as well as serving as a conduit to drive the story. It’s an artist standing up and saying “This is who I want to be.” Rock wrote Top Five supposedly in his trailer while working on Grown Ups 2, and I see it as almost a cry for help. It’s an artist finally realizing that he’s making junk and sick of it enough to produce something good. Plus, you get to see some brief stand-up in the movie from the actor, which is always a treat. He is one of the best stand-ups in the world after all.

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.
If you’re a fan of Chris Rock’s stand up, then you should enjoy his latest. You can hear his voice in this movie. It doesn’t seem to be compromised. It’s curious and interesting, just like the man himself. It’s also intelligent, joyful, edgy, energetic and very entertaining. Top Five is a really good time at the movies. I hope this isn’t a one-off curiosity in his filmography but instead a sign of things to come. I’m interested in seeing more from this phase of his career.

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.


  1. Rosario Dawson is ridiculously good at making unlikely romances seem plausible; in Clerks 2 there's no way she'd hook up with Dante, but I was willing to go with it.

  2. Great review. Excited to see it. Your line about his "cry for help" while in his trailer filming Grownups 2 made me happy. I was such a big fan of hurt my heart to see him tied to those "movies".

  3. Thanks for your insights, Adam. I enjoyed the movie and found it funny and endearing.

    I interpreted the underlying message as focusing on what you do well, choosing growth areas that support what you do well, and finding satisfaction through a full and sincere effort. Oh, yeah, and a little hot sauce goes a long way. (¡Picante!)

    Some things didn't work for me, however. At times the supporting cast and some of the acting worked against the story because I kept being pulled out of the fictional reality. Also, as you mentioned, I wasn't sure how the question, "Who is your top five?" related to the plot enough to warrant the reference in the title. Overall, though, it's an entertaining movie with smart commentary.

  4. Since we're talking about the Chris Rock/Louis C.K. combo, can we get some love for Pootie Tang? I was working at a movie theater when this came out, and I'd spend my lunch breaks watching the middle hour again and again and again just laughing until I cried. I was always by myself. It was one of the most walked-out-of movies in my six years slinging popcorn. No. 2? Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

  5. Saw this over the weekend with a black audience at our neighborhood theater in Harlem. While funny is funny here or in Peoria this crowd really added to the experience. I haven't heard an audience laugh so hard at a movie (and me along with them) in ages. The one influence on Rock Adam didn't mention besides Louis C.K. and Woody Allen was Judd Apatow's "Funny People." "Top Five" finds Rock mining his own past and decades of showbiz/comedy know how, and while "Funny People" was commenting on the whole comedy subculture and overall industry routines Rock seems more interested in the humanity of the characters than making a grand statement. It's also a NYC day-in-the-life-that-will-change-me-forever movie about alcoholism and the walls of secrecy professionals build around their lives. That's a full plate of issues, but the movie doesn't pause to preach as much as wraps its messages tightly around the funny parts, which is the best and more efficient way a comedy can get its message across.

    It's a little bittersweet seing a still-healthy Tracy Morgan scoring laughs. The fake 'Huggie' movies Rock appears in within the movie don't have the self-mocking fearlessness with which Sandler poked fun at himself in "Funny People," but I'll cut the former some slack because the latter set the bar so damn high. If you can tolerate a tinge of homophobia in the movie's portrayal of gays (which is made more tolerable by how LOL nasty 'that scene' got) and constant name-dropping of the producers' names for their own self-aggrandizement (Jay-Z, Kanye West, Questlove, etc.) "Top Five" is a slight variation of an age-old showbiz story done lean, mean and 'effin green. Shame it took the crapload of mediocre movies Chris Rock made up to this point for him to get his bearings and snap out of the funk.

    1. J.M. please keep it comments and not full blown reviews. Thanks.

  6. Great review Adam. Is it strange that I'm more intrigued by this movie than any other coming out this month? The Woody Allen/Louis CK vibe has me really interested in this.