Chris Rock takes a good hard look in the mirror with his new film Top Five and sees a superstar celebrity comedian trapped by his own success. Rock’s Andre Allen, who learned his chops in stand-up comedy clubs before hitting it big in a trio of blockbusters playing a costumed crime fighter called “Hammy the Bear,” wants to change the narrative of his career. He stars in and directs a film about the Haitian slave rebellion he’s calling “Uprize!”, which features a key scene in which Allen and his fellow revolutionaries heroically massacre several thousand white people. The idea is funny but the film is not supposed to be. “Uprize!” is as commercially irresponsible as a minstrel show, as is Allen’s decision to marry a reality TV star who insists on shooting the wedding live. And just for good measure, he allows a New York Times reporter to shadow him while he’s going through the worst two days of his life. Or are they the best two days? Such is Chris Rock’s sly, subversive and very funny feature-length selfie, a journey of raunch and romance that leads ultimately to the rebirth he was looking for all along.
Rock’s third outing as a director (his previous films were the lightweight comedies Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife) is many things at once: a structurally challenging ode to comebacks, a scathing rumination on fame and a lacerating view of alcoholism’s self-destructiveness. His character is recovering but still susceptible, especially when the new career train he’s on begins to derail. The reporter, played by the excellent Rosario Dawson, is also an AA alum and also walking a fine line between honesty and her own career needs. They make a fine pair, sparring and trading insights, while walking the sidewalks a la Woody Allen’s Manhattan and dipping into Andre’s old neighborhoods.
The movie skips back and forth in time, offering up surprising moments of truth during its many authentic excursions into black family life and relationships. These gritty interludes and asides, featuring cameos by Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, Jay Pharoah, J.B. Smoove, Gabriel Union, the rapper DMX and even Ben Vereen, are funny, heartfelt and staged with an off-hand flair, as if Rock is delivering a pointed riposte to the money-making platitudes found in the films of Tyler Perry.
The scenes in which Allen, his family and friends work through the lists that supply the film's title are highlights. But the movie is not without its own share of flat moments and misplaced comic landings. A flashback to a Houston bacchanal is boisterous but not very believable; neither is the late-in-the-day reveal of Dawson’s true identity. A subplot involving her white boyfriend is regrettably homophobic, and Rock’s penultimate scene, while funny, seems a tad too easy.
But these inconsistencies aside, Top Five is a vigorous, probing and sobering attempt by an energetic actor, writer, director and comedian to come to terms with his future. Rock employs a self-excoriating eye for the details of bitter compromise. He treats the weight of familial responsibilities and jealousies as necessary to bear. And he allows enough light in to cleanse the cynicism from his soul and to brighten his days with the possibility of a new love. The movie is both serious and rollicking, but I didn’t think I’d walk away with the smile I had on my face.
This review appeared earlier on The Restless Critic blog.