A NYC comedian (Chris Rock) tries to make it as a serious actor when his reality-TV star fiancée (Gabrielle Union) talks him into broadcasting their wedding on her TV show. An unexpected encounter with a journalist (Rosario Dawson) will give him an new outlook on his life and career.
Chris Rock has been the foul-mouthed and likeable mainstay of American comedy for so long that it’s hard to believe the wiry performer is now 50. Tackling issues of race, class, sex and politics with crude candour and a cheeky grin, Rock’s stand-up persona manages a unique combination of rudeness, anger and middle-class smarts. Your enjoyment of his latest writing/directing/starring effort, the raggedy and at times raucously funny romantic comedy, Top Five, will depend largely on how much you enjoy that persona together with the many in-jokes and industry cameos that are crammed in.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a hugely successful stand-up comedian whose career has degenerated into a series of stupid police movies where he plays ‘Hammy the bear’ - a bear-suited crime fighter known for his inane catchphrase, “It’s Hammy time!” (Is this a comment on Rock’s three-time outing as a certain mouthy Zebra in the Madagascar franchise? Quite probably.) A one-time alcoholic who believes he’s unable to be funny without being drunk or high, Andre is now trying to build a career as a serious actor and filmmaker, though his latest film, ‘Uprize’, an hilariously misjudged historical drama about the Haitian slave revolution of 1791, is sinking quickly on its first day of release.
It’s on this day that Top Five is set, as Andre desperately navigates a gruelling schedule of humiliating publicity engagements, all the while fielding calls from his monstrous fiancée, Erica (Gabrielle Union), a reality TV star who is engineering their upcoming wedding as a tightly orchestrated media circus. This subplot is the weakest link in the story, providing no convincing evidence of a history or relationship between the two, but luckily it’s a minor part of the story.
Meanwhile, Andre is saddled with hosting an opinionated New York Times reporter, Chelsea Brown (Rosaria Dawson) as she trails him for the day to research a profile she’s writing for the magazine. In a walking and talking style (so much talking!) reminiscent of Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the film allows the couple the chance to argue and joke about politics (Obama is actually half black and half white, insists Rock) and race (the original Planet of the Apes movie actually contributed to the assassination of Martin Luther King, hypothesises Rock). Chelsea asks difficult questions, like why Andre is no longer funny. She remembers him back in the day, when his stand-up routine at her school rocked her world, and so although she despises him now, she has a deep respect for his talent.
This is, after all, a romantic comedy, so over the course of the day the spiky reporter (who shares his issues with sobriety) and the abrasive comedian develop an undeniable rapport. It’s the chief strength of the film that this relationship works and is by turns funny, antagonistic and tender. The chemistry is palpable and believable. Chelsea combines beauty and bravado, and has her own earthy sex stories to tell (one involving a chilli-soaked tampon will make the eyes water), making her a convincing foil to Andre’s crude humour and not-so-hidden vulnerabilities.
Yet it’s Top Five’s comedy set pieces that stick in the memory – whether you want them to or not. They may be inelegantly woven throughout the narrative, but they’re priceless and frequently fearless: A flashback to Andre’s ‘rock bottom’ moment on tour, when he finds himself in a hotel room with two hookers in a feather-strewn pillow fight that quickly turns sordid as the gargantuan tour promoter (Cedric the Entertainer) intrudes and has his wicked way, leaving Andre in a fetal ball on a semen-soaked mattress. Or a This is Your Life type scenario, where Andre revisits rough and struggling friends and family from his past, featuring a bunch of funny performers like Sherri Shepherd, Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Michael Che and Jay Pharaoh, who seem intent on cutting their famous friend down to size. Or a seedy bachelor party attended by Andre’s celebrity friends, allowing Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopi Goldberg to riff on topics like adultery and pre-nups. Then there are the jokes, like Rock’s take on whether a black man can get a taxi in New York (these days, yes); or whether “A nigger can get fired for saying nigger to a nigger.” (Probably not.)
Unlike his previous features as director and writer, Head of State (2003) and I Think I Love My Wife (2007), Top Five benefits from Rock fully exploiting his own persona and his own conflicted experiences of being a famous, rich African American performer who is expected to be both a role model and a relentlessly funny guy. (For a different angle on this, it’s also worth seeking out the entertaining 2009 documentary Good Hair, produced by and hosted by Rock, in which he explores the political and economic implications of African American people trying to ‘correct’ their kinky hair.) As a writer and director, Rock is uneven, and yet, as his character laments in Top Five, why does he always have to be funny? Why can’t he try something new? Ultimately, though, his best material is rooted back in the energy and intimacy of brick walled stand-up comedy clubs. And he knows it.