Chris Rock is an incredibly versatile stand-up comedian, with material that ranges from mainstream raunch-fueled slapstick to poignant political and social commentary. More importantly, his ability and willingness to effortlessly swing between such different subjects has made him an enduring force on the comedy landscape. This versatility comes across very apparently in his new film Top Five, which he directed, wrote and stars in. With this film, Rock has created something that perfectly suits his strengths. It’s too bad, then, that the finished product too often feels amateurishly-crafted, with a meandering plot and production values far below the standards of other modern comedies.
The film takes place during one day in the life of Andre Allen (Rock), a stand-up comedian turned comedy movie star who is trying to reinvent himself once again as a serious actor, but can’t quite shake the previous persona his fans know him as. Andre’s frustration over his inability to become someone new, all because of the expectations of people he doesn’t even know, makes him an inherently interesting character. Through this character, Rock also allows himself to explore his own sense of fame and the implications that it may have on his personal life and his self-identity.
The intersection between the pressure of national attention and the pressure of private life makes Top Five a much smarter and more ambitious comedy than most. For example, Andre is marrying a reality star (a la Kim and Kanye) and he has to decide how to balance the intimate nature of such an occasion with the media circus that’s growing out of it. This subject matter also allows Rock to create his own skewering of American media and the personalities that drive it. Thematically, there are echoes here of the much higher-budgeted Tropic Thunder.
Like many famous stand-up comedians, Rock’s magnetic, energetic presence makes him well-suited as a leading man. As always, he’s likable yet edgy, honest and unafraid to present himself (and everyone else) as flawed. Every facial reaction and line delivery he gives is hilarious when he wants it to be, but he’s also able to hold your attention when he takes the story to some more dramatic places. Cast opposite him is Rosario Dawson as Chelsea, a journalist who follows Andre around for the one day. As always, Dawson is great as a dramatic actress, even if she rarely causes much laughter.
As popular as Rock is to the general population, he’s clearly also a popular guy among his comedian peers, and it shows in this film’s endless parade of minor roles and cameos from his celebrity buddies. Some play themselves, such as Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld and a couple other hilarious surprises, but most play other characters. This includes the talented likes of Tracy Morgan, Kevin Hart, J.B. Smoove (oh, how I love J.B. Smoove), Cedric the Entertainer, Brian Regan and more. Each comedian is given at least one great moment that, as with Rock himself, highlights their own comedy strengths. The best I can say about the movie’s massive star lineup and sly commentary is that it makes the movie feel like an R-rated Muppet movie without the puppets. That may be a stretch, but it’s honestly one of the best compliments I can give.
There’s enough humor here to create an amazing stand-up special, but it’s Rock’s less-successful execution as a filmmaker that put a damper on my enjoyment. The film follows Andrew around for a day as he meets seemingly every human being he knows and tells the Dawson character stories from his life (which initiate some crazy and quite memorable flashbacks). This leads the film to become episodic, or that word’s fancier cousin “vignette-like”, which isn’t necessarily a bad route for comedy to go in, as TV shows like Louie prove. But Top Five is a movie, and the kind of experimentation Rock uses here feels jumbled, overstuffed with different types of humor and an overabundance of generic life lessons.
Though there are a few (predictable) plot lines that glue the individual sequences together — namely Andre’s alcoholism, upcoming marriage and relationship with his interviewer — the film more or less ends up feeling like a series of skits that don’t always gel well together. Undoubtedly, many of the scenes are as funny as any Chris Rock fan would expect. Some make very good points about the current state of American society, especially with regards to race. And some have profound statements regarding how fame is perceived both from inside and out. But at the same time, some scenes are too wacky and some are too self-serious for Top Five to feel like a coherent whole. I guess what I’ve been praising, Rock’s comedic flexibility, ends up being his own worst enemy, as the film never even tries to find tonal consistency.
It’s a complete and total mish-mash, but it’s a smart and funny mish-mash, and I’m sure that’s more than enough for most. The movie successfully mirrors the rapid topic-jumping of a Chris Rock stand-up special, but I would have personally liked more focus. There have been some really bad comedies this year, though, with the likes of Tammy, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and whatever the hell Adam Sandler movie came out this summer. With garbage like that in mind, it’s hard not to recommend Top Five, even if it doesn’t satisfy me on a narrative level. It’s one of the more earnest, well-meaning R-rated comedies around and while it may not be in my top five of the year, it’s definitely not in my bottom five either.
Score: 3 out of 5