Chris Rock’s new tour de force, Top Five, is so cleverly written that you don’t even realize it’s a romantic-comedy until the deed is nearly done. By that point, even the coldest, most cynical man is powerless to resist its charms. Smart, nasty and frequently hilarious, there is more than enough substance to compensate for the occasional missteps. Between this and Jon Stewart’s Rosewater, comedians are flexing some serious cinematic muscle in 2014.
Rock gives a stellar performance as comedian-turned-actor Andre Allen. Andre’s dubious claim to fame comes from playing a crime-fighting, live-action teddy bear named Hammy. Similar to Riggan in Birdman, three blockbuster Hammy movies have left Andre hell bent on earning some respect for his acting chops. Respect is hard to come by, however, when your marriage to a reality television star (Gabrielle Union) is more “made for TV” than “happily ever after.”
Undeterred, Andre sets about promoting his latest attempt at dramatic credibility, the Haitian rebellion epic, Uprize, which boasts “over 30,000 white people killed!” Time sends their film critic, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), on a literary suicide mission to interview the notoriously truculent actor. This sets the stage for Andre’s pride swallowing siege on the promo circuit, with Chelsea wheedling him to drop the macho bullshit and share something real with her.
Top Five is a satisfying mix of broad comedy and character-driven drama. It’s almost as though Rock is reassuring audiences that it’s okay to demand a little quality with their raunch. True, things teeter on the brink when Dawson breaks out her hot sauce tampon (don’t ask), but it still plays because of the terrific character detailing that preceded it. Plus… it’s funny! Rock takes the care and time to build these characters up so he can deconstruct them again and again.
And he never spares himself from the barbs. It’s ironic that Rock wrote this great script while filming the comic abortion, Grown Ups 2. This infuses the entire film with subtext, giving the respect-starved Andre a curious mixture of bravado and self-loathing. Rock isn’t afraid to share the stage with his co-stars, either. Dawson, in particular, does terrific work as the skeptical, yet hopeful Chelsea. This is a woman who isn’t waiting for anything… she’s grabbing it by the balls. Yet she remains a vulnerable character who, like Andre, battles alcoholism and the repercussions of her boozy decisions. Dawson’s give-and-take with Rock is worth the price of admission alone. They share an easy chemistry that steadily builds until you can’t picture them partnering with anyone else.
Rock also employs an ingenious interview device that allows him to jump around in the story. In other words, he cheats in order to jazz up the punch lines. More importantly, he reveals information judiciously, providing more twists and turns than the typical rom-com snoozefest. We go deep into Andre’s world, witnessing firsthand the angst, pressure and entitlement that turns regular people into (almost) movie stars. It also gives us an excuse to mingle with stand-up comedy luminaries like Seinfeld, Sandler and Brian Regan (who should have his own television show by now). There’s also a cameo from a rapper who shall remain nameless to protect one of the funniest scenes in the entire movie.
As a director, Rock has clearly taken a few notes from Woody Allen. New York City becomes an invaluable character. We get the glitz and the glam, but we also get the grime. One particularly effective scene features Andre stumbling upon his father, Carl (Ben Vereen), while cruising the old neighborhood. It’s a subtle yet devastating scene, as Carl repeatedly demeans Andre by calling him “Hollywood,” only to pitifully beg for a few bucks when Andre tries to escape. Both with setting and tone, Rock clearly establishes this world as a place where funny people have to sometimes laugh to keep from crying.
Still, even though Top Five has some serious undertones and a little more substance, its primary objective is to make you laugh. It’s the most consistently-funny adult comedy of the year, and sends you from the theater feeling great about life and the possibility of true love. This is a huge step forward for Rock, who proves himself to be a capable actor and a gifted screenwriter. Now if he could only follow Hammy’s lead and not do that extra Grown Ups sequel.