In spite of all the hype and meaningless ‘Black Woody Allen’ comparatives, for those of us familiar with his work for a while, Chris Rock is finally starting to really get his shit together. A shiny, effervescent prose poem dedicated to the human condition, warts and all, Top Five offers up moments that make those infamous hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention. Often there’s nothing more tedious than artists offering up self-laudatory, relentlessly narcissistic twaddle, like last week’s Birdman, but no worries, here comes the antidote to pretentiousness. A brilliant comedy drama, it has old-fashioned romantic love, artistic freedom and every bit of dirt, concrete and humanity in New York City. At its center is Andre Allen (Rock) as he canoodles his merry-ass way from schizoid Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side slowly descending into the lower depths of Manhattan accompanied by the drop-dead gorgeous and magnificently dry-witted Rosario Dawson.
In basketball they call it run-and-gun. Rock finds a very crafty means of grafting on back story for André as he slowly peels the onion that is his existence to ambitious, dubious Chelsea Brown as he confesses shards of his life story including a de rigeur, hilarious family visit to the projects in which Tracy Morgan gets to shine, and then a less easy to swallow visit to Dolce & Gabbana as André picks up gifts for his vacuous hard-case of a fiancé who stars in a reality TV show, marvelously realized by the underrated Gabrielle Union. All the while, they are repeatedly interrupted by fans and celebrity glory hunters, who greet him as Hammy the Bear, an obnoxious, live-action cartoon character he can’t seem to remove from his resumé. Sure, he’s a brilliant comedian and successor to the throne of Richard Pryor; sure, he wrote and directed ‘Uprize!’ a prize-winning celebration of the slave-rising in Haiti; sure he is a relentlessly gifted juke box full of gags, but the public wants Hammy the Bear. It’s a neat little take on the kind of stereotyping that tends to ruin careers as both fans and artists long to hold on tightly to the familiar, tried and true.
Could this filmmaker be the same misanthrope who gave us those dogs Head of State and the beyond awful I Think I Love My Wife? The word is that Dawson, who goes back with Rock a ways, friendship-wise, really let him have it with both barrels over the misanthropic pettiness of I Think I Love My Wife. Rock was listening, it seems, and there can be no doubt at all that he finally figured the director/star conundrum out. And as much credit as can be given to Dawson, probably much kudos also ought to go to actress/director Julie Delpy, with whom Rock co-starred in her brilliant little comedy 2 Days in New York.
There are a few gags and contrived scenes that seem to be geared more toward giving his friends cameos than driving the movie, although Rock probably does the best film showcasing of both Tracy Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer’s talent yet. Rosario Dawson has been in a lot of films but there’s not one I can think of without Googling. In this one, she gets to carry the film as much as Rock while being photographed with a kind of crystalline beauty by cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro.
Nobody even comes close to Chris Rock as a standup comedian, the sheer level of relentless quality that goes into his routines. 90-minutes of all killer and no filler, renewed every other year on tour and then on HBO, it has been going on for well over a decade now. With Top Five, Rock as taken his oeuvre of excellence and transferred it into pure cinema. A true quality piece of entertainment.