“What did the room smell like?”
I’m prefacing this review with an admission anyone who reads my thoughts already knows: I think Chris Rock is a pretty terrible actor. Love the guy’s stand-up, find him hilarious in real life and on paper, but stick him in a movie and he almost looks scared. The only comedian more unnatural on screen is Jerry Seinfeld—whose cameo here helps prove it—another funny dude always seeming to be waiting for the “cut” or laugh, whichever comes first. I say this because that attitude on behalf of critics and journalists remorselessly ripping up artists in print like they don’t have feelings is at the heart of Rock’s latest film Top Five, which he wrote, directed, and starred in. I say it too because despite all that I found it charming as hell and hysterical to boot.
I don’t care if you chalk it up to him portraying a character in the same line of business and surrounded by his real life friends—some playing themselves—or call it a fluke. Whether the stars aligned or I missed something the other times I’ve seen him in the multiplex, none of it matters in regards to Top Five‘s singular success. It’s fresh with the sort of storytelling angles I’ve become accustomed to from Louis C.K.‘s “Louie”: sequences of quasi bits strung together with a cohesive theme and tempered by moments of authenticity, enlightenment, and pithy commentary on the state of America today. There’s a ton of random asides and one-liners too that are perhaps delivered for their own sake above the story, but each is funny enough to never derail the scene.
It’s dialogue heavy with a rhythm always moving downhill to the punch line right from the get-go as Rock’s Andre Allen walks alongside Rosario Dawson‘s Chelsea Brown, telling her about racial disparity, the fact the US still isn’t liberal enough to put a handicapped person in office, and how he could wave all day yet never get a cab to stop for him in New York City. The argument is completely over the top with Rock getting all worked up as Dawson shakes her head because at the end of the day it’s a “bit” taken out of the comedy club environment and reappropriated into the real world. It’s by and large a rant that can only culminate in proving the exact opposite point from what he’s trying to shove down our throats and it’s completely honest as a result.
The film continues in this manner with a few Tropic Thunder-esque meta laughs thrown in for good measure to ease the audience into understanding that everything about to come is a joke. Rock is mocking the industry, the apathetic viewership who devour reality TV with baited breath, celebrity worshippers too afraid of themselves to not live vicariously through strangers, and both the Hollywood sell-outs doing whatever the money tells them to do as well as the pretentious hacks believing it’s always been about something more. Everyone on every level of cinema from behind the scenes, stars, and ticket-buying public is skewered and dragged through the mud, but behind every joke also lies the truth of what we’re sacrificing or feeding to be a part of the game: love, addiction, pride, jealousy, and most of all guilt.
Andre Allen is the epitome of celebrity stereotype. An A-list star courtesy of an overtly silly comedy franchise that’s had a public battle with alcoholism and newfound rebirth into a serious dramatic actor no one who loved him cares to see. He’s engaged to a Bravo C-lister trading privacy for vanity (Gabrielle Union‘s Erica who Rock expertly writes a moment of vulnerability that makes you second-guess the kneejerk desire to blanketly dismiss all reality TV personalities), short and often abrasive with the media attempting to simultaneously help sales of his latest film Uprize (about the Haitian slave revolution) and bait him into promising a return to comedy he wants nothing to do with, and frankly a full-of-himself guy wallowing in self-pity because the adoration given to him is for a version of himself that’s dead and buried.
In this regard Top Five is as far from light comedy as one could get and yet I was belly laughing regularly throughout. It’s mostly the travels of Allen and Brown—the one journalist genuinely interested in talking about his metamorphosis and the reasons behind it rather than poke and prod about surface nonsense. He takes her to his old neighborhood to meet the characters he’s most natural around (a who’s who consisting of Tracy Morgan, Sherri Shepherd, Michael Che, Leslie Jones, and Hassan “Wee-bey” Johnson), his publicity tour with fluff reporters, and a checklist of things to take care of for the wedding while Erica and her show’s producer Benny Barnes (Romany Malco) block the nuptials “set” in advance. It’s the first time Allen has been real in ages and it’s an open faucet once he starts.
So while a lot of the film’s appeal comes from little jokes like Brian Regan saying “stank”, Adam Sandler lamenting his never getting a pre-nup, Anders Holm having objects shoved up his ass, or Cedric the Entertainer being riled up in Houston, there’s much more depth to what Rock has crafted. One could say it’s a cathartic adventure for him and any celebrity willing to see himself or herself in the central character before maybe deciding to take a step back and figure out if the path he/she is on is the correct one. This is the media circus of showbiz with everyone selfishly doing what they can to get paid, higher ratings, and maybe a tinge of controversy. Everything can be spun, covered up, or manufactured if you let it, but life should always be most important.
 Photo credit: Ali Paige Goldstein. Left to right: Gabrielle Union is Erica Long and Chris Rock is Andre Allen in TOP FIVE, from Paramount Pictures and IAC Films. (c) 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: Ali Paige Goldstein. Left to right: Chris Rock is Andre Allen and JB Smoove is Silk in TOP FIVE, from Paramount Pictures and IAC Films. (c) 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: Ali Paige Goldstein. Tracy Morgan is Fred in TOP FIVE, from Paramount Pictures and IAC Films. (c) 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.