“I don’t feel funny anymore,” complains the movie star played by Chris Rock in Top Five, but don’t worry. Unlike Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, this cinematic confessional, which is also a genial wish-fulfillment fantasy, is actually funny.
It’s also indulgent, uneven and naggingly misogynist, which is weird, given how sharp writer-director Rock has been on any number of other subjects lately. In the runup to the release of Top Five, Rock has been everywhere, writing beautifully about racism in The Hollywood Reporter and being interviewed by Frank Rich on politics, ethnicity and comedy in New York magazine.
Rock is a genuine 2014 media hero, one of the most thoughtful pop cultural voices of the day. His latest movie, following Head of State and the Eric Rohmer remake I Think I Love My Wife, isn’t quite what it could’ve been. But it’s the rare commercial mainstream comedy that improves as it goes.
The best of it favors the loose, conversational universe of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight trilogy. The Rock character, Andre Allen, is a comic turned filmmaker. He’s best known as Hammy the bear in the Hammy trilogy, the bear equivalent of Big Momma’s House. But times are changing, if he has his way. His first serious drama—an 18th-century Haitian slave revolt epic called Uprize!—is about to come out in theaters. The New York Times assigns a feature writer, played by Rosario Dawson, to shadow Andre for a profile. Subject and interviewer thrust and parry all around New York and vow a mutual pledge of “rigorous honesty,” though that proves easier for one than the other.
Both are recovering alcoholics. Andre’s crass, fame-hungry fiancée (Gabrielle Union) has Andre tied up in a Bravo reality series about their upcoming wedding. She’s just transparent and unpleasant enough, in screenwriting terms, to nudge Andre toward his interviewer/interrogator without any undue nuance. Zigzagging through flashbacks to Andre’s debauched drinking days, Top Five marshals a wealth of comic talent in the supporting ranks. Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer and Romany Malco spice their scenes, some fresher than others, and everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to Adam Sandler to Whoopi Goldberg pops in as well.
The movie’s other foot is planted in stand-up and what Rock learned from it. Andre reconnects with his comedian instincts in a scene (after the movie’s big reveal, a ridiculous one) where he performs an impromptu set at a Manhattan comedy club. As a comic and as a comic actor, Rock is easy company. He can get away with pungent cultural critique (at one point he dings all the “bad, dark-skinned boyfriends” in Tyler Perry’s movies) simply because he’s a deft hit-and-run artist, never lingering for long in any one comic intersection. Well, one exception: the scene in a Houston hotel room with a couple of gold-digging hookers, also featuring Cedric the Entertainer, goes on a while. It belongs to a dumber movie than this one, and in a script alert to all kinds of behavior and perspectives, why can’t Rock envision female characters that aren’t in some way duplicitous or shrews?
So there’s that. There’s also the rapper formerly known as DMX singing Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” as you’ve never heard it before, in a prison cell sequence. It’s inexplicably terrific—my vote for the comic setup least likely to succeed but successful anyway. In Top Five, you sense Rock trying to load all these disparate talents onto a conventional romantic-comedy structure. It’s a close call, but it holds.
Certain aspects of Rock’s film feel extra-topical thanks to real life, 2014 division. Andre struggling to breathe while in a New York Police Department officer’s chokehold is supposed to be a fleeting transitional image, but with the late Eric Garner still on the collective American mind, it’s a startling moment in a film more into genial provocation, and Dawson’s smile in close-up.
Top Five (R): ★★★✩✩