by Nathan Sacks
The premise seems self-indulgent on paper: a superstar comedian past the twilight of his fame opines on matters of life, politics, sex, and the Hollywood industry to an attentive reporter, who works for The New York Times no less and also happens to be a beautiful woman. Chris Rock’s Top Five could have been an unwatchable spectacle of ego. Then again, based on the premise My Dinner With Andre might have seemed masturbatory garbage as well. Top Five manages to leverage a flimsy concept into a solid comedy with at least a half-dozen comic set pieces that had me laughing as hard as any recent movie.
Director: Chris Rock
Producers: Eli Bush, Barry Diller, Scott Rudin
Writer: Chris Rock
Cinematographer: Manuel Alberto Claro
Editor: Anne McCabe
Music: Ludwig Göransson
Cast: Adam Sandler, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld
US Theatrical Release: December 12, 2014
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Rock plays Andre Allen, a superstar comedian and actor (the character is based on himself as well as Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, Chris Tucker, and Kevin Hart). Allen is best known to casual audiences for his Hammy the Bear trilogy, wherein he dons a bear costume and shouts “It’s Hammy Time!” while firing machine guns. The franchise has made $600 million and counting. But Andre has left comedy behind and is trying to promote his dramatic new movie about the Haitian slave revolution, which appears to be sinking in theaters before opening.
The beautiful Times reporter is Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who over the course of the movie gets Andre to open up and discuss his feelings on the changing nature of race politics, his reasons for quitting comedy, his anxieties about age and upcoming nuptials to a vapid reality star (Gabrielle Union), and basically any other hot-button subject Rock has time to get to during the film’s 102-minute length. Along the way Andre takes Chelsea to his home in Brooklyn, where he is lightly chastised but ultimately welcomed by his family (a staggering group of comedians and actors including Tracy Morgan, Sherri Shepherd, Leslie Jones, Michael Che, and Jay Pharoah, all in the same room). The film’s title comes from Andre’s Brooklyn family arguing their “top five” favorite emcees in rap history* (Andre’s choices: “Jay, Nas, Scarface, Rakim, and then I might let Biggie get in”).
The overarching conflict and question of the film is whether Andre and Chelsea will act on a romantic attraction that develops during their lengthy conversations, walking familiar streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn (that Andre would be cheating on the woman he is supposed to marry the very next day is not a moral question the movie cares about very much). The “will-they-won’t-they” plot ends up being far less interesting than the various digressions and comic moments in the film, some of which had the audience almost rattling the floor with laughter. Andre’s story of how he went sober is a bravura humorous storytelling. Dawson’s character has a few brilliant flashbacks as well.
Conceptually, Top Five is not original. The film’s most obvious antecedent is Woody Allen. Dozens of Allen films built the Top Five template: the writer-director-actor casting himself as thinly-veiled vessel for his rants and opinions. Woody made a lot of good films like this back in the 70s, but this can just as easily lead to unbearably self-righteous material. For instance, few Allen films (or films in general, come to think of it) are as loathsome as Whatever Works, where Allen had Larry David basically mock and demean the intelligence of Red state Bush supporters with embarrassingly easy potshots.
Luckily, Rock is schooled in the ways of self-doubt and self-criticism and knows how to measure his own ego against reality. He undercuts himself wonderfully during a moment when Andre tries to demonstrate how a black man can’t get a cab in Manhattan, and then a taxi immediately stops. The moment proves that Rock is so perceptive on race because he allows all views to be undercut, including his own. Being willing to mock its own opinions helps the film from becoming an egocentric, mean-spirited multi-millionaire rant.
The film’s other major antecedent is Judd Apatow. Like Apatow, Rock casts a number of his comedian friends in roles where they basically play themselves talking in naturalistic, improvised dialogue. In addition to the bevy of comic actors mentioned above, actors like Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler, and especially Jerry Seinfeld (who has the best “top five” list of all) add a substantial number of laughs to an already very funny movie.
The film has its flaws. Attempts late in the game to humanize Gabrielle Union’s nameless fiancée are not successful and end up making her look desperate and petty, a cartoon of a reality star instead of a human. And the film is also ultimately unclear on Chelsea’s motivations and reasons for taking an interest in Andre Allen (other than that he is famous). The film’s ending is unearned and sentimental, precisely the type of romantic comedy climax that Woody Allen tried to subvert with Annie Hall.
Still, Top Five is ultimately a comedy and should be judged based on its laughs. On that level it succeeds. This is Rock’s third film as a writer-director. His first film, Head of State, anticipated the arrival of a black president. His second, I Think I Love My Wife, was a remake of an Eric Rohmer film co-written with Louis CK. Now that Rock has gotten his Woody Allen jones out, I hope he continues to write and direct with material that is more plot and action versus conversation-driven comedy. Rock has proven often enough he knows how to engage and tell funny stories—now he needs a narrative that is an actual story, not just a brilliant series of comic set-pieces.
*By the way, my own is: Andre 3000, Guru, Tupac, Kool G. Rap, Redman.