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Top Five

There's much more to Chris Rock's latest sharp, smart comedy than art potentially imitating life.
Top Five

Image: supplied

In Top Five, a performer, best known to the masses as a stand-up comedian and star of lowbrow movie fare, branches out to do something more. Off-screen, it is writer, director and actor Chris Rock, in his third feature as a filmmaker after 2003’s Head of State and 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife; on-screen, it is his fictional alter ego. Yes, art purports to imitate life, but that’s just window dressing. The hilarious and heartfelt Top Five ranges well beyond the mirror it potentially holds up to the comic great’s own existence.

Here, Rock (Grown Ups 2) is Andre Allen, playing a cop in a bear suit in an inexplicably successful film franchise his most recent claim to fame. It’s the day his latest movie – Uprize!, a passion project about the Haitian Revolution – opens across America, and he’s on the press trail. His tasks include the usual promotional chats, including spending the afternoon with New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson, The Captive). They walk and talk, stopping by her apartment, meeting his friends, and attending to his errands. Their candid and careening chat covers her as much as him, his career, his attempt to alter his image after troubles with drinking and drugs, and his upcoming wedding to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union, Think Like A Man), intermingled as topics of discussion with her work as a journalist, her daughter, and her love life.

Wandering by foot, rambling by mouth and meandering in matters of the heart are easy and oft-used conceits for a film, two people ambling through various situations, sharing a variety of secrets and forging a bond. Simplicity and popularity can’t detract from the fact that as an on-screen storytelling technique, it works, as Rock is clearly aware. He doesn’t rely solely on comic conversation, yet he doesn’t overcomplicate his narrative either. Slapstick flashbacks and gag-fuelled interactions with the wealth of supporting players who make up Andre and Chelsea’s world – including his best friend and body man (J.B. Smoove, TV’s The Millers), her boyfriend (Anders Holm, Workaholics), and his famous pals (Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg and Adam Sandler as themselves) – complement the central stroll. 

Of course, there’s more to Top Five than moseying around Manhattan and digging into the characters’ backgrounds, as enjoyable as the perfectly paired Rock and Dawson make that surprisingly sweet, soul-searching jaunt. Their screwball dynamic sparkles whether adversarial or affectionate, and the inevitable amorous complications never feel opportunistic, nor do the many Cinderella references undercut their emotional honesty and naturalistic portrayals. Into their dialogue and into a film that’s ostensibly a deep-thinking, crude-laughing romantic comedy, Rock wrangles a mix of humour, drama, insight and deliberation. Making statements layered upon statements, he touches upon contemporary US life, race relations, the state of modern journalism, the price of fame, what passes for amusement, and what it currently means to be an African American entertainer. 

With such musings underscoring the mirth, it is apt that the clever and cannily structured script puts the talent first at every turn – and not just Rock, but the feature’s extended cast. As a writer and director, Rock gives everyone from Kevin Hart (The Wedding Ringer) to Tracy Morgan (30 Rock) to Cedric the Entertainer (A Haunted House) their moment, showcasing the skills of all who fill his frames, and making the material suit them, rather than vice versa. His stylistic choices do the same, shinily shot by Manuel Alberto Claro (Nymphomaniac), speedily edited by Anne McCabe (Thanks For Sharing), and set to an upbeat soundtrack overseen by The Roots’ Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson. It’s smart, sharp packaging for a movie dressed up as an obscenity-laced, ego-driven comedy but delving much deeper – just like the satirical parallels the film invites then eschews in favour of reflecting not its star and his facade, but society and reality.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Top Five
Director: Chris Rock
US, 2014, 102 mins

Release date: March 12
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: MA

Sarah Ward

Tuesday 17 March, 2015

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay