Chris Rock’s third and best outing as writer-director, “Top Five” stars the actor in a loosely autobiographical role as a successful New York comedian struggling to gain serious clout. While the character faces mixed results, Rock himself is a different story: His lively, polished comedy instigated a fierce bidding war following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, ultimately landing the biggest distribution deal of the festival — a $12.5 million offer from Paramount. Was it worth the heavy spending?
From a purely industrial perspective, the appeal of “Top Five” makes plenty of sense. Rock’s savage wit comes through in the wry screenplay, which is loaded with topicality as it pokes fun at subjects ranging from Tyler Perry movies to Angry Birds. Cheeky celebrity cameos include Tracy Morgan, Whoopi Goldberg and Jerry Seinfeld. It contains plenty of zippy one-liners that, alongside the famous faces, will look great in a trailer. But the truly clever gamble of “Top Five” is that the movie manages to comment on its own commercial prospects.
In essence, Rock has made his version of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” series by way of the humorous self-reflection found on “Louie,” scripting a tale of midlife crisis discussed in detail by a man and woman as they roam around over the course of a single day. Rock, who worked with “Before” star Julie Delpy in her own soul-searching look at neurotic urbanites talking through their problems, may have taken notes from the experience. While certain prolonged bits overstay their welcome and a few plot twists strain credibility, “Top Five” excels at examining the isolating nature of fame, gliding along on the charisma of its leads. Rock’s character, a recovering alcoholic named Andre Allen, meets up with cunning New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) intent on digging into his career ambitions.
On the brink of a questionable marriage to an aspiring reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) and facing the possibility of another flop, Andre initially evades Chelsea’s attempts to dig into his anxieties. But over the course of a long evening, as Andre starts to understand Chelsea’s own troubled romantic life, the pair form a bond that goes beyond the constraints of a professional relationship. Rock’s script has a freewheeling sensibility that never strays too far from its punchlines, but Dawson’s confident turn hints at deeper connotations above the narrative’s simpler appeal.
While the conceit of this would-be couple’s ongoing dialogue has plenty of heart, “Top Five” mainly focuses on the jokes. Andre’s best-known role, dressing up as a police bear named Hammy, echoes the kind of gags about terrible comic roles found in “Tropic Thunder.” Andre’s attempt to embark on a more respected career, with a misconceived Haitian revolution drama called “Uprize,” leads to a string of punchlines that never sour. J.B. Smoove (as Andre’s overbearing assistant) and Kevin Hart (as the actor’s manager) both flesh out the absurd degree of pressure that Andre faces from the people looking out for his career. “If this thing flops,” Hart’s character says, “we could be talking ‘Dancing with the Stars.'”
Before all else, “Top Five” foregrounds Rock’s savage wit. Whether discussing a theory connecting “Planet of the Apes” to the MLK assassination or recalling a grotesque orgy-gone-wrong from his days on the wagon, Andre is a reliable source of the casual vulgarities that distinguishes his standup routine. At the same time, scenes between Rock and Dawson develop enough authenticity to earn the handful of sincere moments that they share.
Even so, the movie’s contrived scenario is often too committed to its own self-referential plot, and an unlikely third act twist arrives so tidily that it distracts from the energetic pace leading up to it. But the central characters are so endearing in their neurotic tendencies that “Top Five” never really loses touch with its underlying appeal. Despite its satiric edge, it offers up a sophisticated protagonist without simplifying his frustrations. In one revealing moment, his broke father mocks his son for going commercial and then asks for some cash. Later, locked in a jail cell, he sees his conundrum in a broader context that has both absurd and poignant ramifications.
But “Top Five” smartly looks beyond its protagonist’s problems to ask bigger questions, mainly the one referencing its title, which involves attempts by several characters to list their favorite hip hop artists. It’s a canny means of exploring how no measure of talent can account for personal taste. Co-produced by Kanye West and Jay-Z — with an executive producer credit going to The Roots’ Questlove — “Top Five” doesn’t just explore the challenges of finding creative satisfaction, but owes its existence to some of the people faced with that very question. In spite of its silly attitude, the movie asks real questions about the tension between show business and artistic desire.
There are more accomplished cinematic achievements that deal with the same issue — most recently, Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s “Birdman — but “Top Five” embeds it in the same lightweight attitude of the commercial business it assails. The humor is simple but not insubstantial. “I don’t feel like doing funny movies any more,” Andre tells one journalist, but for Rock, “Top Five” proves that’s hardly the case.
“Top Five” premiered last weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival. Paramount has not yet determined a release date.