TIFF 14: ‘Top Five’ is one of the best comedies in years

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Top Five
Written and directed by Chris Rock
USA, 2014

Chris Rock has always been one of the most invigorating presences in the comedy scene. His comedy is confrontational, biting and hilarious. Up until this point, his foray into filmmaking has rarely matched his unique and vibrant talents, and while there are certainly exceptions, on-screen Chris Rock has usually been reduced to a much tamer and often much less funny version of himself. With Top Five, however, the gears seems to shift. Chris Rock not only shows off why he is one of the funniest people alive, but applies his humour to a surprisingly daring narrative about the value of laughter and the struggle of being an artist. The film also works as a wonderful meta-textual narrative on the state of the current Hollywood system, as well as a touching romance.

Top Five opens up as a fairly straightforward Hollywood comedy. The opening scenes serving as light parody of a system obsessed with awful but cash-heavy franchises that diminish the human value of their star performers. Early on, Chris Rock determines the particular struggles of black actors within this system, his alter ego Andre specifically becoming famous for a character in a costume concealing his identity (a bear named Hammy) and ultimately struggling to be taken seriously for his drama about the Haitian Revolution. In the spirit of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, this film is a journey for the character to find himself and ultimately to find the value in his comedy. The film even draws from specific scenes from the film with Chris Rock’s vision something of a re-invention and a re-appropriation of Sturges’.

It is similarly easy to note in Top Five important ties to the work of Linklater’s Before trilogy, the film itself taking place within 24 crucial hours and featuring narrative-stalling discussions about life, love and culture. Through the budding romance between Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson, we have a real sense of intimacy that is unexpected in what seemed to be a broad parody of Hollywood. Rock, however, transforms these digressions into something daring and exciting. They become on one hand digressions akin to his comedy, monologues turned into dialogues that threaten and confront the character’s already fragile identity. They are scenes that explore the nature of making your place in the world, and build up to the film’s uproarious climax.

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Rock cleverly integrates several different shooting styles to reflect different states of reality and mind within the film. Aided by one of the best cinematographers working today, Manuel Alberto Claro, we move from the uncomfortable sheen of reality television to cinema vérité documentary style effortlessly. As the film pushes Andre further and further to confront reality,  these forays from the real world to the ‘reality’ world only serve to emphasize the contradiction of Andre’s experience. The skill with which Rock navigates these worlds makes for some incredible moments of cinema — such as when his soon to be wife (a reality TV star in the style of Kim Kardashian) briefly breaks character and has a ‘real’ moment; suddenly the walls start to fall down and the truth really begins to emerge. Editing, perhaps the most integral stylistic element of a successful comedy, is equally on point. Credit to Anne McCabe who is similarly responsible for some of the best editing works of the last ten years with credits like Margaret, Adventureland and several HBO shows. It is rare that a comedy film matches the talent on screen so eloquently with the talent behind it, making it clear that the film’s production was no joke. This is a film that put its money where its mouth is, demonstrating that comedy has value and can make a difference.

Much of the film’s strength lies in the incredible chemistry that exists between Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson. They play off each other beautifully, with equal parts charm, intelligence and wit. The rest of the cast only further adds to the film’s depth, bringing to the table some of the most talented comedians working today. While some are featured in brief cameo roles only, we have a real sense of friendship at the heart of every scene. After the TIFF screening, Chris Rock explained the importance in comedy of working with friends. With comedy, the funniest moments are often those that exist between sets and between shows, and much of Top Five exists in that mind-space.

Beyond a fairly intimate romance, it is really the satirical elements that send Top Five into a higher league. This is not just a criticism of the mechanism that creates reality stars out of people with no talent, or who cater to addicts and damaged people; this is an industry that cares little about people or audience. It is no secret, in particular, that Chris Rock is pointing a finger at Hollywood for its misuse of talented black actors, as well as being heavily critical of films made for black audiences (there are more than a handful of scathing jokes at Tyler Perry’s expense). Rock is standing firm that audiences deserve better than what they’re getting, and with this film being sold for $15 million, hopefully there is evidence that he is onto something.

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