How Chris Rock Made the Personal Impersonal in ‘Top Five’
I have been a big fan of Chris Rock’s since I was young. “No Sex (in the Champagne Room)” was one of the first comedy things I listened to in secrecy, so impressed by its humor and edge and so scared that my mother might find me listening to it. I’ll admit to liking Down to Earth, Rock’s very strange and broad Heaven Can Wait remake, and Head of State made every worthwhile joke to be made about the Obama presidency before he was even a twinkle in the Democratic National Convention’s eye.
Many comedians I respect have said that Top Five is Rock’s masterpiece. That he had finally found a way to put his stage jokes on screen. That Louie was punching up the script with him. That said, high expectations are the downfall of this film. There are charming, likable, hilarious moments to be sure, but the film is weighted with such a blatant desire to be considered important, both internally and externally, that it is hard to figure out how to even engage with what Rock is trying to say.
In some ways, it’s difficult even to consider the film critically. Rock mounted a massively successful publicity campaign with an epic Frank Rich-penned New York magazine profile and ubiquity at the 11:30pm slot for what felt like weeks. The tour both complimented the film and allowed the text of the film and Rock’s personal persona to blur — I like Chris Rock the man so much that it is hard to be negative about his work, and he clearly uses that likability to his advantage.
Additionally, film critics are the film’s primary antagonists, in particular a self-interested New York Times writer who doesn’t seem to really understand the film’s broadly fictionalized New York. So between his own publicity campaign and his film’s unflattering representation of critics, a pretty ironclad shield has been set up: either you love the film or you don’t understand Chris Rock.
So let’s get into the film itself. Rock plays Andre Allen, a fictionalized version of himself who, after finishing a successful Hollywood franchise called Hammy the Bear, decides to make serious film, Uprize! about a Haitian slave rebellion. The film follows Allen on his day of press for the latter, during which he is shadowed by a young New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown, played by Rosario Dawson. Meanwhile, Allen contends with his sobriety, his impending reality TV marriage, his roots, and the top five rappers of all time.
The structure of the film is built around a series of what could be considered sketches — a flashback to a rock-bottom gig in Houston, a visit to his childhood home, the end of Dawson’s relationship, and a revelatory scene at Rock’s strip club bachelor party featuring some comedy megastars — woven through Andre’s Before Sunrise-esque interview stroll through New York with Chelsea. The pieces are wildly varying in tone and perspective and don’t necessarily build Rock’s or Dawson’s characters in a way that makes us want them to be together. The clearly Woody Allen-inspired scenes of their day in New York oddly never feel lived in or authentic. Narratively, the film relies on romantic comedy tropes that are easy to track and hard to believe and visually, it betrays the specificity that Allen, or even Rock’s close friend Louis C.K. bring to their renderings. I mean, at one point Andre and Chelsea take the subway from 10th Street and 6th Avenue and end up in Union Square (a mere 4 block subway ride that does not exist, for those unfamiliar).
Really, it is not that I found Top Five not enjoyable, I just found it confusing. It seems that Rock forced himself to reign in what he is best at for an attempt at a more personal style, but someone else’s personal style. There are two scenes in the movie that really work: the group scene at Andre’s childhood home with Sherri Shepherd, Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharoah, Michael Che, and others and the scene at his bachelor party with Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Whoopi Goldberg. In these scenes, Rock appears comfortable speaking his mind, he seems unconcerned with how he appears, the camera is fluid and quick, everyone feels natural and everyone is hilarious. There is such an inherent looseness to the way he and those around him speak in these scenes that is so counter to the rigidity of the scenes with Dawson. Clearly, in these scenes, we see the personal movie Rock set out to make.
It seems from his filmmaking, this story, and all of the press he did surrounding the film, that Chris Rock wants to be taken seriously. That’s fine, but one of the big conclusions in Top Five is when Andre does a set at the Comedy Cellar and realizes he loves comedy again. More than that, he realizes the power of comedy and that he doesn’t need to make serious films to speak his mind. In many ways, I wish Chris Rock had come to this conclusion before making Top Five, because he clearly has an intensely personal, hilarious, vulnerable, auteur film in his voice somewhere and I am as excited as anyone to see it when it comes to be.