Hollywood has never really known what to do with Chris Rock. That’s been increasingly apparent over the last decade or so, with the so-called “the funniest man in America” finding work as either a cartoon zebra in the Madagascar series or as Adam Sandler’s Friend in The Longest Yard, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and the execrable Grown Ups films. This kind of descent into commercialised pap is hardly unique among comedians – particularly black comedians – as demonstrated by everything Eddie Murphy’s done in recent memory. But unlike Murphy, you don’t sense that Rock has given up, and he’s continued to apply his thespian talents in independent or foreign-financed films like 2 Days in New York, his documentary Good Hair and, now, Top Five. Hollywood’s big studios might not have a firm grasp on how to leverage Rock’s gifts, but at least there are people out there happy to let him tell his own story.
Top Five falls into the familiar genre of cinematic autobiography. Granted, it’s not technically about Rock, who’s playing a character by the name of Andre Allen. But while Andre isn’t exactly a precise facsimile of Rock – who, as far as I know, is neither a recovering alcoholic nor engaged to a Kardashian-esque reality television star – he’s nonetheless a famously successful stand-up comedian, burdened with a commercially successful but artistically abysmal film franchise (Hammy the Bear, where he plays a cop in a bear suit partnered with Luis Guzman). Top Five provides Rock the opportunity to exhibit the characteristics of great stand-up: insight, personality and, to quote the film itself, “rigorous honesty.”
Top Five isn’t a masterpiece; a mid-film digression featuring Anders Holm smacks of homophobia, while its ‘satire’ of reality television stars is mean-spirited and unoriginal. It’s not as funny as I expected, either, which is partly a consequence of the near-empty cinema in which I saw the film, and partly a consequence of the simple fact that it’s not an out-and-out comedy. But – inspired by the title, which refers to a regular question about peoples’ favourite five hip-hop artists/groups – here are my top five things about Top Five, in no particular order:
“New York,” he smirked, adjusting his glasses, “is like a character in this film.”
Yeah, it’s not. But it is an important element of the film, as integral to the texture and pleasures of Top Five as it is to Woody Allen’s films (and it only now occurs to me that Rock’s character’s name in this film is almost certainly a hat-tip), or the TV shows of Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham. Much of the film is spent following Andre and journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) as they chat, banter and flirt their way through the streets of New York. It feels authentic and personal all at once; this is New York City, yes, but it’s Chris Rock’s New York City. Speaking of…
What It’s Like to Be Chris Rock
It’s easy for films like this to slide towards narcissism; the ugly blotches of the self-portrait get painted over and the resulting image is almost perfect in its solipsism. To some extent, this is true of Top Five – how could it not? – but one of the film’s great successes is how it balances the pitfalls of fame – the grind of the press tour, the anxiety born of expectations, the persistent sense of attention, the whole upcoming reality show wedding thing – with a realistic realisation that, hey, being rich and famous isn’t actually all that bad. This is especially apparent when Rock visits his friends and family – played by the likes of Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Hassan Johnson (Wee-Bey!) and Sherri Shepherd – who temper their genuine affection with a thick vein of jealousy. Who wouldn’t want to be this guy, shitty radio interviews and all?
I mentioned a handful of great actors above, but the whole film is densely populated with talented actors and comedians (many of whom, admittedly, make only brief appearances). Comedy legends like Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg and Adam Sandler (legend is debatable, here, I’ll admit) appear as themselves, while the cast is filled out by the likes of Gabrielle Union, Kevin Hart, J.B. Smoove, Romany Malco and, in an especially memorable appearance, DMX. The real highlight is undoubtedly Dawson, who bursts off the screen with charismatic vibrancy.
I’ll admit I was sceptical of Rock’s choice to position himself as an alcoholic. Initially, it feels a little artificial, particularly when his “bottom” – retold in an extended flashback – principally involves having sex with Hayley Marie Norman. But it won me over, in part because it felt authentic (apparently Rock’s older brother died after a struggle with alcoholism), but largely because of how successfully it’s linked to Andre’s artistic expression. Right after Andre relapses and takes a long swig of beer from a supermarket aisle, his face lights up with a broad grin that contains oblivion; the only other time we see him looking this happy is after an impromptu stand-up set – except that grin has none of the despair behind it. Top Five is fundamentally about addiction, but not just to alcohol – but to approval, to meeting expectations.
Suffice to say, any film that has Kanye West and Jay-Z as executive producers and music by ?uestlove is as much a pleasure to listen to as it is to watch.
Hollywood may not know what to do with Chris Rock. But, thankfully, someone – Rock himself – has worked out exactly what he should be doing.