Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review: Top Five

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Chris Rock's "Top Five" is an example of art imitating life - at least, sort of - as the comedian and actor steps behind the camera for his third feature, which blends elements of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" and Richard Linklater's "Before" films, but is - as Rock himself has called it - a rare film that explores black culture from a black point of view. And the film's lead character bares some similarity to its director and lead.

It's a good movie - often funny and occasionally on-point about topics ranging from politics and popular culture to racism in America and how whites perceive black culture. This should come as no surprise as Rock has always been not only a really funny guy, but a pretty astute judge of goings-on in these United States.

At the film's beginning, Rock's Andre Allen is a former comedian turned blockbuster star who is now acting in his first dramatic film in a bid to get people to take him seriously. Not exactly helping his cause is his entanglement in an upcoming wedding to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) that will be, of course, live on TV. Take note that Kanye West was one of the film's producers.

The film in which he stars is obviously doomed to fail. It's an historical drama in which Rock plays the leader of a slave rebellion in Haiti. It's likelihood to go unseen is not due to the fact that it's a bad movie - in fact, we only get minor glimpses of the film itself - but because people would rather pay to see junk than films that are About Something. Andre's previous successes were in a series of idiotic action movies in which he plays a gun-toting bear who happens to be a cop. Naturally, this is what his public wants.

"Top Five" takes place within a single day as Andre walks through the streets of New York City being interviewed by Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter who is not afraid to ask the tough questions. And, naturally, since the film is a comedy - and, at times, a romantic one - those questions nag at Andre, making him question his life's choices. A former alcoholic, he tells Chelsea that he no longer does stand up comedy because he was only previously funny onstage due to his out-of-control drug and alcohol abuse.

The film offers a look at the life of a celebrity, but it's also clearly a personal one for Rock. And there are a number of moments in the film that feel extremely lived-in. He juxtaposes sequences of Andre shuttling back and forth to press junkets with a scene during which he drops in for a bit of real talk with his family in Brooklyn. Tracy Morgan and several other character actors play Andre's family and his scenes with them are not only among the funniest in the film, but they also provide some solid characterization for the film's lead.

A handful of critics have called "Top Five" one of the year's funniest movies. But while I liked the film, it's definitely more the type of comedy that makes you laugh because you recognize something human in its jokes. It's not exactly a gut-buster, although there are a few sequences that might have you rolling on the floor (I doubt there'll be a straight face in the audience when Andre finds himself sitting across from another celebrity during a brief stint in jail).

Rock has matured here as a director (although I admit to having found his "Head of State" to be pretty damn funny) and I'm anxious to see what he'll do next. Here, he gets to have his cake and eat it too. Andre clearly wants to be taken seriously for his art, but late in the film he also gets a reminder of what a joy it is to make others laugh. Most people would likely agree that Rock is very funny, but here he also makes a bid for being a serious filmmaker and provides a solid case for it.

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