Scott F. Evans
Top Five is Chris Rock’s most accomplished work yet. The film tells the story of a successful standup comic turned actor, in the midst of a ‘career midlife crisis.’ Rock headlines the film as Andre Allen. He was a hit on the comedy circuit, but really blew up after starring in a series of ridiculous (but inexplicably popular) action comedies playing a character named Hammy The Bear.
A recovering alcoholic, Allen keeps trying (and failing) to break away from both the Hammy character, and comedy overall. At the dawn of the release of his newest movie, he reluctantly agrees to a long form interview by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). As they move through the streets New York, promoting the movie and visiting old neighborhoods and friends, the two begin discover the truth about each other.
As a director, Rock has a pretty strong visual eye. This is a dialogue-heavy film. But instead of (potentially) boring his audience by having his two leads just sitting in various locations chattering on and on, Rock makes the most of their surroundings. Allen and Brown stroll through the city as they verbally joust with one another. But instead of having them coincidentally ‘show up’ at all of the typical NYC tourist traps, the settings become more organic to the plot. And the best part is, they don’t distract from the dialogue. Instead of marveling at the Brooklyn Bridge, you actually pay attention to what the characters are saying.
The only time the visual style changes is when Allen and Brown attend a get together at an ex-girlfriend’s apartment. Gone is the steady and smooth camera work, replaced instead with hand held shots and jump cuts. The deliberate switch works because it doesn’t feel perfunctory. The chaotic shots blend perfectly with the scene, which is packed with claustrophobic banter.
Top Five has a decent script. It’s well written enough that strong actors like Dawson, Gabrielle Union, and Romany Malco have solid material to work with. Still, it’s not especially dynamic. The dialogue flows and sounds natural, but the story feels a little muddled. We’re not clear how Allen got to this place. We never really find out what made him decide to ‘sell-out’ — and how big of a deal that was to him. His decision to ‘get serious’ feels like a random choice he made one day.
There’s a suggestion that his former comic success was directly connected to his alcohol abuse, and his need to be taken seriously as an actor is a result of his sobriety. But that’s never fully fleshed out. Instead we get a lot of social commentary masquerading as story points.
At times, Top Five also feels slightly schizophrenic. For most of the nearly 2 hour run-time, the film leans heavily on clever banter. That’s where it really works. But there are a couple flashback sequences that are so broad and LCD raunchy that they seem to come from completely different screenplays. These scenes are well done and funny, but they are tonally jarring.
Chris Rock is Top Five’s writer, director, and lead. Unfortunately, the latter is where he suffers most. Rock is the film’s weakest acting link. He never seems completely present in the scene. Although his acting has improved over the years, he’s not remotely strong enough to shoulder the weight of the picture. Fortunately much of that slack is picked up by Dawson, who easily matches wits and comic timing with Rock. She’s also able to navigate her character’s emotional twists and turns with seamless finesse.
Union also has a couple of great moments as Allen’s reality star fiancée Erica Long. In what could have been a one-note role, she’s so good that you wish Rock had given this character more to do. Malco also manages to do a lot as Long’s manager, and leaves you wishing that he’d gotten more screen time.
Meanwhile, JB Smoove (a performer whose appeal I’ve never understood) gets more screen time than Malco and Union combined. He plays Allen’s best friend and assistant Silk. He’s not terrible, but he’s not good either.
Ben Vereen, Sherri Shepherd, Tracy Morgan, Kevin Hart, Gabourey Sidibe, Jerry Seinfeld, Taraji Henson, Adam Sandler, Luis Guzman and Whoopi Goldberg pop up for cameos. Some of them work and feel essential to the plot, but most are superficial and play like Rock just invited some of his celebrity buddies down to the set for a couple of hours.
Top Five is a flawed film, but it’s elevated by the dialogue and an excellent performance by Rosario Dawson.
By the way, my Top Five:
- Big Daddy Kane
- Talib Kweli
- Black Thought
- Kool Moe Dee