“Top Five may not be the most consistent or uproariously funny comedy of the year, but its charm starts at Rock’s audacity, something his standup continues to reflect, and continues with how adamant he is about incorporating major themes about an industry in a way that may be challenging for many to understand but contemplative and maybe even self-reflective all the more.”
If there was any actor/comedian that was going to make a film about the struggles of rising to the top, remaining funny, hanging on to a name that represents nonstop hilarity and talent, and navigating the ins and outs of the business of being funny, Chris Rock probably would’ve been on the directorial shortlist. “Top Five” is one of Rock’s most personal directorial efforts and it’s indicative that Rock has some significant things to say about his life, his story, and the world of comedy. With “Top Five,” a gathers a comedy ensemble of industry greats and young talent to create one of the year’s most original comedies that, if nothing else, allows you to look at the fragility of an actor/comedian’s career and longevity.
The film concerns Andre Allen (Chris Rock), one of the most famous comedy actors in the business today after doing three consecutive comedies revolving around the character of Hammy the Bear, which had Allen dressed in a large, realistic bear outfit. At this point in his career, Allen wants to forget about Hammy the Bear and focus on his new film “Uprize,” concerning the slave rebellion in Haiti, which is proving to be an uphill battle to market and convince audiences this is a new direction for the actor. In the mix of marketing and releasing this film, as well as marrying his fiancee Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) live on the Bravo Network, Allen is also giving a revealing interview to Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a journalist working for a critic who detests all of Allen’s films. With this, Allen must confront his past to understand and move forward his present, and Top Five explores how he manages to get by with such baggage like alcoholism and self doubt about his own relevance.
Instantly, Top Five reminds one of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), another film released this year about an actor trying to disregard his previous film roles as a superhero in favor of a more grounded, serious project, in this case, a play he desperately wanted people to see, connect with, and positively receive. Top Five, like Birdman, is also a film about dealing with one’s critics, regardless of whether or not they are professional or everyday individuals that comment on your work positively or negatively. Birdman and Top Five both tow dangerous lines here, and one false move could’ve easily made both films seem nothing more than a whiny display of alleged satire and social commentary about the relevance of critics, as if they brought on the problems in their characters’ lives simply by giving their opinion on their products. However, Rock is far too intelligent to make a one-note film about passing blame and lambasting negative critics. Instead, he makes his character of Andre Allen recognize the role of a critic, but also criticize how one man in particular seems out to get him at every turn, divulging professional criticism into needless personal attacks, as well as showing that the true change and accountability of oneself is, of course, a big part in life.
When Top Five addresses these ideas, often through witty and thoughtfully-written conversation between Rock and Dawson, is when the film shines. Unfortunately, “Top Five” doesn’t always want to stick to these ideas in the most rational sense, and frequently descends into showing debauchery in a way that’s distracting and simply not funny. The wild sex scenes in “Top Five” are like poison to the thoughtfulness of the material, with raunchiness taking place between four characters at a time, including Cedric the Entertainer, and another terribly unfunny scene involving Chelsea’s ex-boyfriend. The wild scenes in Top Five aren’t like such in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” where they either carried a genuine element of industry realism to them or helped develop the character of Jordan Belfort in some way, and instead play for the cheap and desperate sight gag laugh that has no long term value whatsoever.
These ribald scenes almost effectively derail the ideas of the film, and the fact that Rock throws many in the film at strange and disjointed times makes for a movie experience that’s frequently uneven, but, at the very least, also unpredictable. The other thing to note with the film is that two of its producers are rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West, who have their music playing at various points of the film, giving Top Five a “bought and paid for” vibe that also doesn’t gel particularly well with the film’s presentation.
Nonetheless, even with these inclusions, Rock and company manage to be funny, including several hilarious moments with actors like J.B. Smoove, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Kevin Hart (who really proves his presence works best in a “less-is-more-fashion”), and even DMX, cementing that Rock knows how to do more than just name-drop and stunt-cast. Every character in the film has a reason for being there, and, amazingly, no one feels like their own marketing campaign. Top Five may not be the most consistent or uproariously funny comedy of the year, but its charm starts at Rock’s audacity, something his standup continues to reflect, and continues with how adamant he is about incorporating major themes about an industry in a way that may be challenging for many to understand but contemplative and maybe even self-reflective all the more.