Chris Rock has finally made the kind of movie Chris Rock fans have long been waiting for -- a brazenly honest, delightfully vulgar romp through the streets of New York City. In so doing, he managed something just a little bit more. Top Five is a viscerally honest, highly personal examination of fame. It is Rock's declaration that he will always be a stand-up comedian at heart, even as he shows his talent can translate easily in to other areas.
At its core, though, it is less about the particulars of Rock's life and more about doing what makes you happy instead of constantly trying to prove yourself to others. Sure, you could see this as a further examination of what drives fame-seekers, but you do not have to be interested in fame to understand the allure -- fruitless though it might be -- of trying to show your audience, big or small, just how capable you are.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a world-famous comedian who wants to be taken more seriously as an actor. His first step toward that goal comes in the form of a fictional film, Uprize, about a Haitian slave rebellion, and Top Five picks up on the day it opens, with Andre bouncing around New York to press junkets and radio appearances in promotion of the film. It's a seminal moment in Andre's career that is matched by a major life milestone -- his impending marriage to reality star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union).
This is a big moment (two, really) for Andre, and yet there appears to be little joy in it, something the New York Times reporter tagging along with him through his day picks up on immediately. Rosario Dawson plays the scribe, Chelsea Brown, probing and second-guessing these momentous changes. The banter between the two — mostly as they stroll down block after block in Manhattan — gives the film bursts of energy. It allows for introspection on Andre’s part — about his alcoholism, his desire to be taken seriously, his upcoming marriage — but it also clears a wide berth for Rock’s bawdy humor. Even if you’re not easily offended, you won’t soon forget Andre’s flashback to rock bottom, a cringeworthy, quasi-accidental foursome in Houston during which Cedric the Entertainer memorably cameos. That goes double for Chelsea’s tale about a hot-sauce soaked tampon.
The New York City setting, with all of its hustle and bustle, gives the film constant movement. It gives you a taste of his fame, putting you in a SiriusXM studio as he is asked to “put some stank” on quick-hit advertisements for the satellite radio giant, and a hint of his roots when he pays a brief visit to the family and friends he grew up with, a group that includes Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones, Sherri Shepherd and Hassan Johnson.
If you’ve seen a Chris Rock stand-up special, you are certainly familiar with his stage presence — his trademark prowl and the seemingly limitless intensity with which he tells jokes. Top Five, likely because of its setting and the plot devices it employs, somehow manages to match the boundless pep of a Chris Rock show while telling a story that he never could up on stage.
The two previous films written and directed by Rock, Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife, exactly reversed this dynamic, stretching what might be a five-minute joke from one of those specials out to feature length and causing all manner of pacing problems as a result. Top Five captures the spirit and bounce of a Chris Rock comedy special while amounting to something quite a bit more than a leaky vessel for Rock’s edgy humor or a longform version of one of his bits.
It’s fitting that he figures it all out as a filmmaker with a movie that is about finding a new level of comfort with who you are and letting go of the desire to prove yourself in all manner of ways and to all manner of people. Top Five is personal, honest and free-flowing. It feels almost effortless. It’s been years in the making, but Chris Rock finally seems as comfortable behind a camera as he is on stage.