It feels that Chris Rock has waited his entire career to make a film as pointed and explosively funny as Top Five, his third and best directorial effort to date. He takes a couple of cues from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Stardust Memories and some of the daring, more experimental techniques of Louis C.K.’s FX series, without losing much of the vicious wit that defines his stand-up routines. Not all of it works, but Rock is willing to take risks and put his insecurities about fame, fortune and being funny out there for audience consumption in a way that is as wild and accomplished as anything he has ever done.
Rock plays Andre Allen – his friends call him Dre – a comic and film star having one of the strangest Fridays of his life. He has a new film opening in which he portrays a Haitian revolutionary. However, the critics pan the drama and it plays to empty auditoriums. As Andre tries to focus on this new “serious” film role, all that journalists and common people want to discuss is his upcoming wedding to a glossy reality star, Erica Long (Gabrielle Union).
To make the day even more congested, his assistant and bodyguard (J.B. Smoove) has planned for a New York Times reporter to be by Andre’s side all day. The journalist’s name is Chelsea, and she is played by Rosario Dawson, with a terse and nonjudgmental vibe that makes her one of the more authentic screen reporters in a long while. She wanders around the city streets with Andre, trying to gauge why the funnyman feels so ambivalent to marriage and is interested in moving away from comedy.
Andre is an elaboration of Chris Rock, not a mirror image of the actor. Top Five does not have quite the same reflexivity as watching Michael Keaton shrink under the shadow of his older superhero role in Birdman or Adam Sander acknowledge his dumb, critic-proof comedies in Funny People. However, what makes Rock’s character more refreshing is how he is not a mere representation of the actor and comedian, but any star weighed down by the pressures of fame and artistic credibility.
The lingering effects of Woody Allen and Louis C.K. are around from the first shot, a long take of Chelsea and Andre strolling down a New York street, arguing about Barack Obama and racial progress. That extended shot feels like a direct homage to the early moment from Annie Hall when Allen walks with a pal down the street, only to be recognized by a fan. Similar to that man recognizing Alvy Singer, many of the street scenes from Top Five are incomplete without a random passersby yelling out “Hammy!” to Andre, a reference to a role that made buffo box office but shames the actor, as it represents how he sold out his career.
Further, just as C.K.’s Louie has a languid vibe, diverting in various creative directions like flashbacks and absurd non-sequitur situations, Top Five goes off on many tangents. Andre tells Chelsea about a wild and crazy night 11 years prior in Houston, a horrifying sexual encounter that earned some incredulous laughs at my screening. Like Louie, the film also has many hangout scenes, as Andre visits friends back in the Harlem neighborhood where he grew up and later chats with some notable A-listers at his bachelor party.
Meanwhile, Dawson and Rock have a crackling rapport that is almost screwball-ish but has the time to be serious. To break the ice, she shows him a pendant that signifies how she has been sober for four years – about the same length he has been off alcohol. In one of the film’s best scenes, Chelsea and Andre walk into a liquor store, gripping the bottles that used to bring them an intoxicating high, imagining a life away from sobriety.
So much of Top Five rolls along like the lyrics to a hip-hop song: brisk, loose, profane, politically incorrect, filled with pop culture references and with some cutting observations about the contemporary world if you start to think about them. However, the film falters in its final third, where Rock’s iconoclastic venture starts applying formula to wrap up Andre’s Friday in a satisfying way. By caving in to a romance the film had been avoiding for so long, the freewheeling pace slows down to make way for unneeded story deadlines.
Top Five is sometimes guilty of trying to do too much, with its unwieldy flashbacks and incessant detours to allow many strong, boldly funny African-American actors the chance to make a cameo. It is also a film that never met a pop culture reference it didn’t like. Meanwhile, in a few instances, some vulgar moments rub up against poignant scenes. Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, a frequent collaborator with director Lars Von Trier, also shifts from clean long takes to some shaky handheld shots a few too many times.
Even with some tonal and pacing issues, Rock’s comedy is always alive, surging forward with colorful, electrifying dialogue. During their conversations together, Chelsea and Andre discuss how the interview needs to have “rigorous honesty.” Despite a few creative hiccups and a detour to a needless conventional ending, Top Five works because it treats many things with authenticity and wit. Among those topics: the celebrity obsession of the current popular culture, the exaggeration of the mass media, the difficulty to keep clean from past demons, the racism of Planet of the Apes. Other sections are just hysterically funny in a wacky, improvisatory way that recalls Rock’s most savage stand-up bits. Top Five may not make many people’s top ten lists this year, but it is a mostly top-tier effort for its main star and creator.
Top Five is a fiercely honest and very funny passion project for Chris Rock that works best when it channels the comic actor’s brazen energy.