I am not a fan of Chris Rock as an actor. I saw Head Of State back in 2003 and swore never to be suckered into watching him on film again. I’ve enjoyed all his standup and HBO specials, but with the exception of 1991’s New Jack City, where he showed some dramatic potential, I never found him to be all that engaging on screen. But I decided to take a chance on his latest film Top Five, in which he directs and stars. The top five of the title refers to one’s top five best hip hop emcees. I’m not sure why the movie is called Top Five, because that subject is rarely broached, maybe not more than twice in the film. I think a better title may have been JoJo Pookie, Your Life Is Calling.
I say that because there are elements of this movie that remind me of Rock’s character Pookie in New Jack City; Rock plays Andre Allen, a comic actor saddled with being typecast in a ridiculous comedy franchise–Hammy The Bear–and he’s intent on remaining himself as a serious actor, but in an equally ridiculous dramatic film about a Haitian slve rebellion. He’s also a recovering alcoholic, which has negatively affected his comedy career (although he fares better in recovery here than did Pookie). The film also seems to offer an exaggerated peek into the life of Rock as a comic star, reminiscent of Richard Pryor’s 1986 semi-autobiographical film JoJo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. The biggest problem with this film is that it bounces between being an insightful moving drama, despite Rock’s shortcomings as an actor, and a balls-out comedy. There are laugh out loud funny scenes that are nonetheless suited for a heartfelt drama, such as the scene where Allen meets with a few of his comedy contemporaries at a strip club to discuss marriage, sex and fidelity; more so when Allen visits his family and ex-wife and they engage in a hilarious reunion. This scene feels like improv and it’s genuinely warm and engaging, as well as extremely funny.
Contrast that to other scenes where the humor seems to have leaped out of an Adam Sandler or a Farrelly Brothers movie. Writer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) has been assigned to tag along with Andre during his press junket in NYC for an article she’s writing about him, during which time she’s confronted with serious doubts about her boyfriend. This leads to a montage and a sex scene that are absolutely over the top ridiculous, homophobic and ultimately have no place in this movie. Another scene involving a shirtless Cedric The Entertainer and a nude Chris Rock with hookers goes on far too long and is a bit more gratuitous than it needs to be for such a small payoff (I imagine I made the point with “a shirtless Cedric The Entertainer” and could’ve stopped there). And then there’s the cameo by a washed-up rapper, in jail, of course, who probably thought the brief role would revive his career, but just solidifies him as a punchline and furthers his descent into obscurity.
Dramatically, the film took me places where I wouldn’t have expected a Chris Rock film to go. There are insightful themes and situations involving Allen dealing with his alcoholism, dealing with the pressures of being a star and having one’s life play out in the media, both professional and personal–his fiancé, played by Gabrielle Union, is a reality TV star who has little to offer humanity–and also dealing with the traps fame has to offer. There is a minor twist in the third act, which was a genuine surprise (or maybe it was obvious and I just wanted to give the film a chance by not thinking too far ahead); at any rate, I appreciated what Rock was trying to do by including this rom-com trope, but because it’s ultimately so minor, something I’d think celebrities deal with regularly, the fact that the conflict resulting from it plays out for so long makes it wear thin quickly.
Overall, I appreciate what this film does in showcasing a more serious Chris Rock. I think it’s his best film to date. I do find myself revisiting some of the themes in my head a few days after having screened the film. I hope to see more films from Rock along these lines, and I hope he decides to explore an all-out drama that simply has funny moments. I am thoroughly satisfied that I won’t be fooled into another Head Of State and that’s saying something. 3 reels
P.S. Seeing Jerry Seinfeld in a strip club…$10. Seeing Jerry Seinfeld confront a black stripper…$10. Seeing Jerry Seinfeld list his top five in the credit sequence while slightly intoxicated…priceless.