Review – Top Five (2014)
Director: Chris Rock
Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove, Cedric the Entertainer
Chris Rock is a great stand-up comedian. While many comics see stand-up as a stepping stone to television and movies – and Rock has definitely taken his fair share of average movie roles – he clearly has aspirations to be a filmmaker not just a performer. With Top Five writer-director-star Rock has his go at being Woody Allen.
Playing what he knows, Rock stars as Andre Allen, a famous stand-up comedian who became a movie star thanks to the stupid but hugely successful ‘Hammy the Bear’ trilogy in which he plays a wise-cracking, gun-toting police bear. However, in a predicament similar to Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, Andre Allen has lost the desire to be funny. Seeking to make serious, uplifting entertainment he has invested everything in a new film overflowing with hubris, ‘Uprize,’ about the 1791 Haitian slave rebellion. It is a couple of days out from the release of the film, which everyone except Allen knows is going to be a flop, and he is doing non-stop publicity. Also on the horizon is his high profile wedding to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabriella Union), a runaway train of an event which his heart does not seem to be in. All in all it is a lot of stress to be on the shoulders of a recovering alcoholic, and it is in this moment that his management has arranged for New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) to spend the day with him for a feature article.
Like many of Woody Allen’s films, New York is a real presence in Top Five. As Andre and Chelsea make their way around the city with press commitments and a trip back to his old neighbourhood, their conversation covers issues including the current state of race relations in America, the world of celebrity and the struggles of sobriety. The romance plot between the two is oh so predictable, but that should not take away from their real chemistry, with Rosario Dawson in particular shining as the single mum reporter.
Top Five is Chris Rock’s third outing as writer-director after 2003’s Head of State and 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife, both modest successes at best. As a writer Rock brings a distinct point of view to the screenplay and makes some savvy observations, both talents no doubt transferred from his stand-up. But he struggles to establish a consistent tone. There are moments of real honesty in the film but then there are some unnecessarily crass scenes searching for laughs, scenes which feel like they belong in a much dumber movie than this one. Similarly, the pacing is a bit off. Some moments are just too long. A more experienced, steadier hand in the director’s chair could have tightened things up and elevated this film.
What Chris Rock does bring to the film is connections. Top Five is chock full of familiar faces in smaller roles and cameos. Kevin Hart, Cedric the Entertainer, Tracy Morgan, Sherri Shepherd, Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler and Gabouray Sidibe all make their presence felt in their one or two scene appearances. But it is the hilarious cameos from Jerry Seinfeld and rapper DMX that prove to be the film’s highpoints.
The title, Top Five, is a reference to a question Andre ponders with his family: who are your top five hip-hop artists of all time. It is an odd choice for the title as the question does not seem to be particularly significant in the overall context of the film, though Rock does revisit it at the dramatic climax, suggesting maybe he believes it is.
While inconsistent, Top Five still contains some great moments, some genuine laughs, and interesting thoughts. It is easily Chris Rock’s best film so far as a writer-director, but Woody Allen he is not.
Review by Duncan McLean
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