Chris Rock has been in a host of movies – some good, some not so much – but first time, he’s made a film that feels true to the person we’ve come to know from his stand up. Top Five is loud and rude and angry – but it’s also thoughtful, thought-provoking and tender.
I’m sure someone will have made this comparison before, but it’s a good one – Top Five is Rock’s Annie Hall. It combines every aspect of Rock’s stand up with a host of interesting characters in situations that feel real. Like his stand up act, it zeros in on $#!+ that needs to be blown up and blows it up while, simultaneously, showing a wealth of heart and respect for the $#!+ that needs to be respected and loved.
Andre Allen is a former stand up comic who became ridiculously famous – and ridiculously rich – for starring in a trilogy of horrible buddy cop movies in which he played a bear with an attitude (and yes, these were live action movies and he was in bear suit).
Now, he’s getting married to a reality TV star, Erica Long (think Kim Kardashian with a heart and a brain) and his first passion project – a film about the Haitian slave rebellion – is opening wide. Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) wants to follow him for a day for a piece for the New York Times.
The film opens with Dré and Chelsea in the middle of the day then cuts back to the beginning of the day. Once he agrees to the interview, Dré and Chelsea stop back at her place and, while she changes and grabs her lucky recorder, he meets her teenage daughter.
We follow the day as he does publicity – getting all up in an sound engineer’s face when he asks Dré to do it again, only ‘with some stank on it’ – picks up the rings for the wedding (the network made a change that frustrates him), and the two talk about what they do and where they’re from.
A key moment is when they agree to give each other rigorous honesty – a moment that will come back to bite them on their butts. That agreement leads to us learning about Dré’s lowest point – and his greatest fear. And, of course, she has a secret that she withholds that could be considered crucial to story.
Top Five refers to the list of several of the characters’ top ten hip hop artists – each telling us something about those characters. It’s an ingenious little device that helps give dimension to even the tiniest role – or create disparity in a character we might think we know (Jerry Seinfeld’s list? Priceless!).
Rock has assembled a terrific cast that includes J.B. Smoove as Dré’s best friend/driver/wingman/watchman/whatever, Silk; Gabrielle Union as Erica, the reality star who’s afraid that without him she will be nothing; Cedric The Entertainer as Jazzy Dee – a sleazy promoter who refers to himself as the Man in Houston; Kevin Hart as his hyper agent, Charles; Sherri Shepherd as Vanessa, his ex – who’s only a little bit regretful she didn’t stay with him and Tracy Morgan as Fred, a couch potato who is clearly the lovably lazy guy we all know.
As a writer, Rock takes some shots at the serendipity of fame and the tendency of Hollywood to take a good thing and run it into the ground. He also looks at the emotional baggage that can make someone look for the safest path – or take the biggest risks. He gets that sometimes the biggest risks are taken for the same reasons as the safest path – insecurity, fear, personal comfort/discomfort.
On the other hand, he hasn’t forgotten that thought-provoking is one thing and entertaining is another – and that sometimes being one can lead to, or benefit from, being the other. And Top Five is definitely both.
If there was such a thing as real justice, Top Five would be a smash hit. It’s so good, though, that it should make enough money for Rock to make other equally delightful films.
Final Grade: A