There is a hilarious scene in Chris Rock’s latest directorial effort, Top Five, where Andre Allen (played by Rock) lays naked quivering in a hotel bed surrounded by, to put it tactfully, the excessive remnants of another man stealing his thunder. This is easily one of the film’s crudest moments, but also one of its funniest. It is an image that not only sticks in the mind, but is also meant to represent Allen’s, an alcoholic up to this point, moment of sobering clarity.
In many ways Top Five feels like Rock’s own moment of self-reflection as an artist. He has finally figured out how to bring his distinct voice as a comedian to his directorial works in a meaningful way. Like the character he portrays in the film, Rock displays growth in his own uncompromising way. He constructs a film in which he sprinkles in glimpses into his soul, but makes the audience work to locate them within the sea of pointed jokes. After all, Top Five is a romantic comedy first and foremost.
Amassing a successful career playing “Hammy the Bear” in a buddy cop franchise, Andre Allen is ready to jump into more serious works. Unfortunately, the general public is not as willing to let go of his comedic persona. While on a publicity tour to promote the opening of his slave revolt drama titled Uprize, based on Haitian revolutionary Dutty Boukman, all anyone wants to talk about is his comedic franchise and his pending nuptials to reality-TV starlet Erica (Gabrielle Union). As part of his media blitz, Allen reluctantly agrees to let a journalist, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), from the New York Times shadow him for her profile piece on the comedian.
Over the course of the day Allen jumps from interview to interview, reconnects with family and friends in the old neighbourhood, confronts his demons and is ultimately forced to take stock in the direction his life is heading.
Chris Rock has never been shy about his affinity for both the works of Woody Allen (his character even shares the same last name) and hip hop music. In regards to the latter, one just needs to revisit his various standup routines, observe his underrated work in Tamra Davis’ CB4, or listen to his guest appearances on albums like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Fantasy, for further evidence of this. So it should come as no surprise that Top Five feels like a deliciously crude Woody Allen film tailored for the hip hop generation. What is startling, however, is how well these two elements come together.
There is a vibrant energy within the film that feels natural even in the films more outlandish moments. It is no fluke that hip hop music is viewed as the unifying element amongst Andre Allen and his friends. More so than any other genre, hip hop has always been obsessed with the notion of authenticity. The whole concept of “keeping it real” does not refer to looking or acting the part, but truly being what one conveys. This is something that Allen has lost sight of during his ascent in to the stratosphere of stardom. It is only when he is doing standup and debating who are the greatest rappers of all time with friends and family – for the record my top five is Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye West, A Tribe Called Quest and Nas, but I digress – that the shades of Allen’s true self begin to emerge.
Top Five is at its strongest during these moments. Though Rock does a great job of spoofing the celebrity lifestyle, including having Jerry Seinfeld “make it rain” at a strip club, it is the scenes of genuine heart that truly resonate. Similar to Rock’s own stand-up routines, the jokes in Top Five work because the audience is fully invested in the characters on screen. Rock neither coddles the viewer by holding back his, at times, lewd fury, nor does he spell everything out. The ambiguity at the end of the film only helps to sell the love story aspect even further.
Hilarious, brash, sweet and wonderfully honest, Top Five is quite an achievement for Chris Rock. It is not only one of the funniest films in recent years, but it actually has something interesting to say. If only more comedies were this bold and intelligent.