When’s the last time Chris Rock made a funny movie, really? His filmography in recent years has been riddled with mediocrity – the dismal “Grown Ups” franchise, “Madagascar” and its endless sequels. A look at his earlier comedies reveals that while Rock has always been an undeniably funny stand-up comic, paint-by-numbers movies like “Head of State” and “Down to Earth” failed to really highlight his strengths and his potential as both an actor and comedian.
We’ve had a few brief glimpses of another side to Rock as filmmaker and film star – even his 2007 flop “I Think I Love My Wife,” with its many problems, showed the writer/director angling towards a more honest form of comedy. In 2012, we got to see him in the dialogue-driven “2 Days in New York,” as Julie Delpy’s boyfriend, a role he relished because it was a real character. “Finally,” Rock said in a HuffPo interview about the movie, “somebody is giving me a script that’s not written in stand-up timing.”
And therein lies the greatest strength of Rock’s latest writer-directorial foray, “Top Five,” his funniest movie in years – if not ever. Possibly taking at least a little inspiration from “2 Days”, here Rock has crafted a thoroughly mature, honest, and above all hilarious rom-com that captures the power and energy of his stand-up, without the artificial and conventional pacing of his past films.
Here, Rock plays a kind of alternate universe version of himself, a comic named Andre Allen who, after hitting rock bottom as an alcoholic, is now clean and trying to kickstart his career. He’s abandoned stand up, abandoned the billion-dollar movie franchise that made him a star (in which he played a loud-mouthed crime-fighting bear), and is gearing up for the release of his first dramatic film – a period piece about the Haitian revolution. We follow him on the eve of his wedding to a reality show star (Gabrielle Union), as he’s shadowed while doing press by a New York Times profiler played by Rosario Dawson.
At first skeptical of the writer, they slowly fall into an easy repartee (Rock and Dawson have surprisingly great chemistry), and through a series of cutscenes and flashbacks, Andre reveals more and more about his alcoholic past, his spiraling career, and his own relationship to comedy.
Here, Rock has elevated not only his visual style as a director, but his narrative structuring, starting the movie in the middle of a heated and humorous conversation between Andre and the journalist about race.
This is a movie that, on paper, would kind of be a mess – there’s a lot going on, a lot of narrative threads to tie up, and an almost neverending stream of comedy star cameos, from Whoopi Goldberg to Kevin Hart to Jerry Seinfeld, and one particularly amazing appearance by a 90s rapper who won’t be named (the reveal is too good). And yet, the best comedians are great storytellers; and here, Rock uses his skill at the set up, and the eventual punchline, to tell a story that is, at various moments, offensive, heartbreaking, deeply earnest, and cringe-inducing, without being overwhelming.
It’s unsurprising that the film sparked a multi-million dollar bidding war in Toronto this year (ultimately going to Paramount for $12.5 million). While imperfect, its meta-like narrative, parodying both Hollywood and the real-life Rock, it’s accessible but adventurous, intelligent but not overly self aware. Rock might have stumbled a bit in the last few years, but with “Top Five” he more than makes up for his past mistakes, improving on them even as he makes fun of them.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.