Top Five (2014) / Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use
Running Time: 102 min.

Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, J.B. Smoove, Gabrielle Union, Romany Malco, Anders Holm, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Sherri Shepherd
Small role: Ben Vereen, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, Luis Guzman, Jay Pharaoh, Michael Che, Charlie Rose, Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe, DMX, Brian Regan
Director: Chris Rock
Screenplay: Chris Rock

Review published December 21, 2014

Chris Rock (What to Expect When You're Expecting, Bee Movie) stars as standup comedian-turned-movie star Andre Allen, travelling through New York to promote his new movie, Uprize!, which represents his first effort trying to branch out as an actor in an important film about an 18th-century Haitian slave revolt. Following Allen around for the day is Chelsea Brown (Dawson, The Captive), a reporter for the New York Times, a newspaper that has, in the past, been a critical thorn in his side. 

Allen is finding it hard to gain traction in his recent endeavor, as he is continuously pigeonholed as the guy who did a trilogy of action-comedies where he dressed like a bear named Hammy. Plus, his movie's publicity is overshadowed by his upcoming wedding to a reality TV star named Erica (Union, Think Like a Man Too), who once helped him sober up, but now he's having a familiar itch to go on a bender and escape from it all.

Rock explores the insanity and inanity of celebrity culture vs. artistic integrity with Top Five, and while his previous two directorial efforts, Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife, never really connected with audiences (though I do like the latter), he's a more natural fit here essentially satirizing aspects of his daily existence as a comedian and actor. 

Some will compare this film to Woody Allen's similarly introspective look at his own celebrity angst and dealings with his critics in Stardust Memories, but Rock brings so much of himself into the writing and characters that it's truly his own feature, unlike any others.  OK, one more comparison to Woody: it's a beautiful looking film that captures New York at its most alluring, shot with a sumptuous eye by cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro (Nymphomaniac Vol. I), which, in combination from an adept music selection by The Roots' ?uestlove, makes for some rich cinema above and beyond the comedy.

Showing a wild mix of both good and bad as a director, Rock impresses when going for the subtler moments, particularly when dabbling into bits of drama, but he's not quite comfortable in keeping laughs at bay for too long.  Where he errs is in feeling like he needs to go all out for the big laughs, especially when it comes to depictions of explicit sexuality.  When Rock's subject is about the career of a comedian and movie-maker, he feels naturally at ease, as it becomes one of the more quotable films of 2014. When Rock tries to find humor through uncomfortable sexual situations with explicit enactments worthy of a Sacha Baron Cohen movie, he feels at his most uncomfortable and least assured.  The movie's best moments, as with Rock's best stand-up routines, come through his observations on the racial, gender, and public policy quips, which truly comes through during a bit where Rock actually takes the mic to do some stand-up -- perhaps the one scene in the movie where he absolutely feels 100% in his element.

Top Five is a very uneven concoction in tone and tempo, but it hits its spots more than most this ambitious, and the effort should increase interest in seeing what Rock can do when as he matures into a more assured filmmaker in the future.  It won't make my top five this year, or even top ten, but at the very least, it's not like anything he's done before, which echoes the themes of the movie regarding that mix of doing what speaks to you in combination to that which you do well.

A digression:

The "Top Five" of the film's title stems from a dialogue between Andre and several other characters to give forth their opinions on who the top five rappers of all time will be.  Interestingly, there isn't much consensus, but I'll offer here my own, as someone who was a hip-hop DJ on college radio for over 11 years, as to who I personally respect the most on the mic:

1. Melle Mel
2. Rakim
3. Big Daddy Kane
4. Kool Moe Dee
5. Black Thought

 Qwipster's rating::

2014 Vince Leo