Would you believe me if I told you a comedy starring Chris Rock might just be the biggest positive surprise of 2014? Well, it is. Utterly profane, tasteless, and filled with politically incorrect humor, I was shocked to discover that ‘Top Five’ was able to secure the same MPAA R-rating that ‘Boyhood’ has. In the MPAA’s words, ‘Top Five’ is rated R for “strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use.” I would also add “and a strong torture scene” – you will know what I mean when you see the movie.
There will be viewers who will be put off by the objectionable material. As for myself – I thought it was one of the funniest movies of the year, and the perfect star vehicle to showcase Chris Rock’s comedic talents. But, of course it would be – he also wrote the screenplay (presumably with himself in the lead role in mind), and directed the film.
I didn’t know what to expect from ‘Top Five’ going in. I hadn’t seen the theatrical trailer. It wasn’t on my radar when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year (where it got picked up for distribution by Paramount Pictures – smart move on their part). Chris Rock is my all-time favorite stand-up comedian (yes, I would even rank him higher than Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy). But, he hasn’t had much luck with movies, especially his previous two directorial efforts. Part of my enjoyment came from some surprise guest appearances, which I will do my best not to spoil for you. Except, I must say, ‘Top Five’ lets you know where DMX has been since his ‘Year of the Dog…Again’ album destroyed his music career back in 2006.
But within the aforementioned raunchy hard-R rated material is a very well written love story between the Chris Rock character and Rosario Dawson. Dawson plays Chelsea Brown, a New York Times reporter who interviews Rock’s Andre Allen. Andre is stand-up comic turned film star most well-known for his ‘Hammy the Bear’ shtick where he plays a cop in a full bear suit fighting crime with his human partner Luis Guzman.
Andre desperately wants to be taken seriously, so he makes a more high-brow film about the uprising of Haitian slaves. Andre guestimates that he and his fellow emancipators slay about 5,000 white people on screen. To no one’s surprise (except maybe his), the movie ends up being a box office bomb. As I’m describing this, it has just occurred to me that ‘Top Five’ has a lot in common with ‘Birdman’ (Michael Keaton’s character pours everything he has into a Broadway play because he doesn’t want to be remembered as the guy who was in those awful superhero movies).
Andre doesn’t want to be interviewed, especially by the New York Times. The film critic from the Times rips Andre’s movies apart. “I wouldn’t watch another one of his movies if it were projected onto my glasses.” Wow. You won’t find a line like that in my reviews. Not even in ‘The Other Woman’, which I’m still considering suing for emotional distress. Dawson is convincing as a reporter. She is quick-witted, asks the tough questions, and is assured enough to challenge her subject’s answers. The two are recovering alcoholics. There is a scene of these two in a liquor store that almost plays out like a horror film – you don’t want either of them open that bottle. But, when a character eyes the booze with a look of both trepidation and cupidity, we are concerned. There isn’t a sweeping score accompanying this scene. It is downplayed and that lends to the film’s naturalism. Andre also feels he needs to reestablish his identity because he doesn’t know how to be funny without alcohol.
The film takes place during a long day of press. Chelsea follows along as he does junket interviews and radio interviews. Andre’s reality-star fiancée (a very funny Gabrielle Union) is more concerned about the media aspect of the wedding than Andre. She even goes as far as exchanging the wedding rings Andre selected for her with ones that are more camera-friendly. In Chelsea’s interview with Andre, she challenges him on the legitimacy of his upcoming weekend. Pay attention to what Andre says. This movie, even with all its tasteless humor, has a big heart.
This is Chris Rock’s Woody Allen movie. This keenly observant comedy is unafraid of exploring topics of fame, alcoholism, artistic success, identity, relationships, and race. There is a great appreciation for comedy, pop culture, rap culture – how it shapes us and the criticality of it. The film also raises the question as to whether the stakes are any different when the person blessed with such comedic gifts is black. Everyone in the cast is game. The screenplay is terrific. Beat for beat, Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson are on the same level; their chemistry is palpable – and they gracefully walk the line between comedy and drama. Chris Rock might be playing a version of himself here. There is still a big movie career left for this actor; I suspect he will be approached by filmmakers to consider serious roles because this movie shows he can be taken seriously.
So, why is the movie called ‘Top Five’? The question that gets repeated in the film is “Who are your top five rap artists?” Most of them cheat and squeeze in a sixth honorable mention. For the record, mine would probably be Nas, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G., Wu Tang Clan, and of course, Kanye West. Is ‘Top Five’ good enough to make my Top 10 list of 2014? Maybe. But I will let you know in a couple of weeks. QED.