Overview: A comedian-turned-movie-star faces his troubled past and questionable current decisions while engaging in an interview with a New York Times reporter. Paramount Pictures; 2014; Rated R; 102 Minutes.
Don’t Call it a Comeback: It would be difficult to find anyone who hasn’t enjoyed or doesn’t enjoy Chris Rock’s comedy. At one point he was, like his character Andre Allen, perhaps the funniest man on the planet. But that was a very long time ago. The modern media, the shifting political landscape, and our social media-influenced culture have redefined the boundaries of stand-up and film comedy in the meantime. Rock, whose standup is infamously built on bold societal observation, is at the mercy of these shifts more than most performers and artists. In that sense, Top Five is more than just a loose-biographical comedy or a comeback effort for a voice that recently left the limelight (as both of those things most often end up as messy failures). The film is the story of a career evolution, a look at the necessity to adapt to the rate at which the modern world progresses, and a hyper-honest confessional about the personal adaptability necessitated by a life that comes at you faster than you were taught to anticipate.
The Ripper Strikes Back: In real life, Chris Rock congregates with some funny people. As the director of this film, maybe his smartest move was letting his friends join him and asking them not to act. The funniest parts of this movie occur when the scene is filled with strong comedic personalities and those personalities are seemingly given no script. The formula of allowing the onscreen talent to rant, ramble, improvise, and riff on one another here feels as alive and new as it has felt since the early Apatow works. To give examples would risk ruining some pretty stellar cameos, but suffice it to say, more than once a scene is stolen by an unexpected guest. Rock himself is also at his funniest in this context; his comedy here feels more natural and energetic, more self assured when he’s bouncing it organically off comparable talent. The only non-comedic presence in the movie is New York Times interviewer Chelsea Brown played by Rosario Dawson. Dawson displays an uncanny ability to stay out of the way of the humor tidal waves when necessary and to hold up the comedy when asked.
Don’t Come Too Soon: If the film has one flaw, it would be its own over-anxiousness. At times, Top Five hopes to be funnier than it is and add humor of a variety that doesn’t fit into the already funny film. Everything in this movie- from hot sauce to homesexuals, from cameos to scene decorations- is placed in set-up for a punchline, but this movie is only funny when it allows the humor to naturally arrive. When it chases jokes beyond its scope, there are moments where it risks being not just unfunny, but disappointing and offensive.
Overall: Top Five is a surprisingly effective and often hilarious comedy that displays Rock’s sharp and valuable insight the way few movies are able to do with their comedian stars.
Sidenote: It feels necessary to share my Top Five.
1. Tupac Shakur
2. Wu Tang (cheating?)