Monday, January 12, 2015

TOP FIVE review

While I remember there being word of Chris Rock doing a movie with producer Scott Rudin a little over a year ago, I must say I was fairly surprised to see "Top Five" pop up out of nowhere towards the end of 2014. And while the film hasn't exactly taken the world by storm and has had a modest box office intake, it's still exciting and refreshing to see such a great comedian like Chris Rock finally realize his talents as a writer and director.

Rock has been in the comedy biz for over 25 years, but he's often left a lot to be desired when it came to his acting career. His previous attempts as a writer/director lead to 2003's "Head of State" and 2007's "I Think I Love My Wife." The failure of those two movies left people wondering why it was so hard for Rock to translate his comedic worldview into film.

But perhaps it was all simply a matter of the third time being the charm. "Top Five" is not perfect. It doesn't really do anything particularly new. And yet, it does feel like a breath of fresh air. There's an underlying charm to it that's been lacking in other Rock movies and it has sort of a thrown-together feel, as if Chris Rock called up his comedian buddies, told him he wanted them in his movie, and they just kinda showed up. Then, from there, he formulated a plot and a story centering around a actor/comedian character as an excuse to bring in all his favorite comedian buds without needing a reason for them to be there.

From that perspective, "Top Five" works just fine. This is a breezy, laid back film that goes by in a brisk 102 minutes. Chris Rock plays Andre Allen, a comedian who's decided to try his hand in more serious dramas. Rosario Dawson is journalist Chelsea Brown, who has been assigned to interview Andre for the day. Through this simple construct, we get to delve into Allen's life. We see the neighborhood where he was brought up, we get a glimpse of his lavish life with fiancee Erica (Gabrielle Union), who is a reality TV star. And we get to know Andre's entourage, including his right-hand man Silk, who's played by JB Smoove. JB Smoove, most definitely a highlight in the last few seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, finally gets a chance to shine on the big screen.

The cast doesn't end there though. Kevin Hart, Sherri Shepherd, Romany Malco, Leslie Jones, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Tracy Morgan, Anders Holm of Workaholics, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Che, Whoopi Goldberg, Brian Regan,  and Jay Pharoah... they're all in this movie! I wasn't lying when I said Chris Rock called all of his friends.

"Top Five" is really just a fun, light comedy in many ways, but what makes it stand out is that it actually has something to say. It has something to say about the nature of celebrity. It's about someone who has a natural talent of making people laugh but worries that he's only actually funny when he's on some sort of substance.

There's a refreshing amount of honesty in this film, which helps smooth out some of the movie's more glaring flaws. Rock's depiction of some of the women in this film feels a bit glib and out of place in what's otherwise a sweet movie. There's also a couple of scenes that deal with a closeted gay man with a viewpoint that feels embarrassingly dated. No one should expect a Chris Rock movie to be politically correct, but my complaints here have more to do with how these depictions impact the movie itself. Rock can be as un-PC as he wants, but "Top Five" is at its best when the humor feels honest and true-to-life. So, that makes the cheap jokes against women and gays stand out in a negative manner.

I've never been 100% enamored with Chris Rock as an actor. He's a brilliant comedian, but he mugs for the camera a little too much in his movies. His comedic cadence often doesn't blend well on celluloid. That said, "Top Five" is probably the closest Rock has ever come to creating a character that actually feels like a real character in a movie, as opposed to just mouthpiece for Rock to do his stand-up comedy.

He doesn't completely turn a corner with this film, but if he keeps going down the Woody Allen-inspired path that he started with "Top Five," we might be in for quite a wonderful surprise. In a movie climate where the majority of black actors and actresses can only get work playing historical characters, we just might need writer/director Chris Rock now more than ever. I didn't love "Top Five," but I admire what Rock was trying to accomplish, and I can't wait to see him build off this film's success.

Grade: B-

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