At times, Top Five feels like a live wire. That thrumming volatility comes as no surprise—it’s a product of Chris Rock’s bluntly indelicate comic inclinations—but damned if the film’s arrival isn’t, for better or worse, the very definition of “timely.” Writer, director and star Rock orchestrates scenes in which he’s beaten on camera by white NYPD officers and arrested after being (falsely) accused of rape; his character even name-drops The Cos in a discussion of great black comedians, which some may deem an unfortunate faux pas. Rock can’t help the bad vibes, though. Top Five wrapped production long before Ferguson, Eric Garner and even the Cosby scandal came to dominate headlines.
If Rock does have precognitive powers, he possesses an equally shrewd sense of setup. Rock opens Top Five with a sequence that blends equal parts Woody Allen, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, and double strains them through his own storytelling lens: two people (Rock, naturally, and costar Rosario Dawson) walk down a sparsely crowded street, trading quips, staccato style, over a difference of opinion regarding critical theory. Is a movie ever just a movie? Is a joke ever just a joke? We don’t get an answer, really, because no sooner are these points raised than Rock commences with his signature observational wisecracks, and attempts to one-up Dawson while disproving the myth of post-racial America by—how else?—hailing a cab.
The punchline is that the cab stops, leaving Rock in a state of dumbfounded chagrin. The introduction is indelibly Rock, a snap beat of self-deprecation that shapes Top Five’s tone and makes us wish more mainstream comedies could be penned this sharply and crafted this well. Like 2011’s meta allegory The Trip and this year’s Birdman, Top Five concerns an artist out to reinvent himself; his name is Andre Allen, and like Rock, he got his start in stand-up before transitioning into acting at the cost of everything that made him funny. (A loaded statement, sure, but you’ll have to see the film to find out why.) Unlike Rock, he’s headed full-steam into a televised marriage to reality TV luminary Erica Long (Gabrielle Union).
Prior to his nuptials, he must go on a press junket tour for his latest endeavor, a biopic about Dutty Boukman and the Haitian Revolution. Enter New York Times writer Chelsea Brown (Dawson), who shadows Allen for an entire day, diligently chipping away at his outer shell to get to his nougaty center. After a fashion, Top Five is a film about Rock himself, but it’s about much more than that. It’s about the struggle to find a creative voice, the relationship between critics and the people they critique, addiction, the rigors of black experiences in predominantly white industries, the laughable artifice of the entertainment world, and so many other things that listing them all would devour any journalist’s word count.
The chief thing to know about the film, though, is that it’s fucking hilarious, as a comedy made by Rock should be. Almost as important is that it’s heartfelt. Rock uses the opportunity to reflect on his own personal and professional travails; he leans on his biting wit, offering few pleasantries in Allen’s quest for respectability. Top Five has tender times, but the film’s sentiment usually gives way to rawer moments involving, among other things, Brown’s relationship with her boyfriend (Anders Holm), Allen’s misgivings about getting hitched, the family he left behind for Hollywood and, yes, those rare occasions that unintentionally mimic the current events on our televisions today.
Still, meaning is all in the eye of the beholder. Rock lets his humor play broadly, but he fills out the space between gags with smart writing and pointed social insights. (The picture makes a fine companion piece with his recent, fiery essay in The Hollywood Reporter about Tinseltown’s race problem.) For the film literate and cultural sophisticates, Top Five offers much worth mulling over. For others, well, sometimes a movie is just a movie, even one so funny and affecting as this.
Director: Chris Rock
Writer: Chris Rock
Starring:: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove, Sherri Shepherd, Cedric the Entertainer
Release Date: Dec. 12, 2014
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has written about film for the web since 2009, and has contributed to Paste since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.