With Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J. B. Smoove, Kevin Hart. Written and directed by Chris Rock. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use. 101 minutes.
TOP FIVE is nothing at all like Woody Allen’s classic “Annie Hall” (1977), but the similarity between what Allen did then and what Rock has achieved here is worth noting. Both had established themselves in stand-up comedy and doing broadly comic films. It says something about Rock’s film career that his best work is arguably voicing a cartoon zebra in the “Madagascar” movies.
What Rock has done here, as did Allen before him, is break with the past by writing and directing a serious comedy. There are plenty of laughs–this may be his funniest film–but the difference is they’re about something. He’s no longer the clown. He portrays someone who is flawed and recognizably human.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a comedian who has starred in a series of cop movies as Hammy. Hammy is a bear and Andre is in a bear suit. Tired of Hammy, and having burnt out on drugs and booze, the now-sober Andre has put his efforts into a serious film in which he plays the leader of a historic slave uprising in Haiti. It’s not what his public wants to see.
Meanwhile he is dutifully promoting it, allowing his fiancée (Gabrielle Union) to plan their wedding as part of a cable reality show, and agreeing to be interviewed by a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) even though the Times’ film critic once compared his movie work to war crimes. Over the course of the day, Andre lowers his guard as he’s forced to see what his life has become, while the reporter has to face a few unpleasant truths herself.
And it’s funny. Hilariously, laugh-out-loud funny. Poking fun at his own role as a celebrity, Rock has gotten cameos from Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler, Kevin Hart, Jerry Seinfeld, Tracy Morgan, Ben Vereen (as Andre’s father), and Cedric the Entertainer. Ultimately, the movie is about Andre’s rediscovery of why he went into comedy in the first place.
As an actor, Rock has never been better. Instead of mugging and clowning around, he lets us in on both the comedy and the pain that’s sometimes behind it. It’s the sort of role that will have everyone in Hollywood rethinking how he should be cast in the future. Dawson is a major plus for the film as Andre’s inquisitor. Her character is equally complex and she hits all the right notes, from the quiet moments to a memorably comic scene about the problems in her own love life. Union’s character is the most cartoonish–Rock is following tradition for this kind of comedy–but he allows her a moment where we get to see that she is more than that, having her own insecurities as well.
“Top Five” takes its title from a game the characters playing naming their top five favorite rappers/musicians. Among Chris Rock’s films, this is more than in the top five. It is number one.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.