Earlier this month, Chris Rock contributed a well-reasoned essay on the racial divide of Hollywood. “It’s a white industry,” he wrote in Hollywood Reporter.
The first scene in Rock’s entertaining Top Five finds his character – a worried comedic actor – walking along a Manhattan street with newspaper writer Chelsea Brown (played with watchable depth by the screen-owning Rosario Dawson). She engages and challenges him in playful, whip-smart ways as they go back and forth on the issue of racial tolerance in the United States. The conversation is quick, humorous and flirtatious. “People are changing,” she says. “Nothing’s changed,” he says.
To illustrate his point, Rock’s Andre Allen attempts to hail a taxi, figuring a black man in New York has no chance of getting a cabbie to pick him up. Andre is smug when the first taxi whizzes by, but his smile disappears when the second one stops. Maybe people are changing, after all. And maybe Rock, who wrote and directed Top Five, has elevated his game, as evidenced by a Woody Allen-worthy scene to start off a fluidly sequenced romantic comedy that has its great moments of romp, raunch and joke-filled dialogue.
Rock is an interesting cat. His awkward stint on Saturday Night Live in the early nineties gave little hint to the stand-up-comedy superstardom that would follow. His solo routines on stage are captivating, biting, observant and delivered with uncanny rhythm. From 2005 to 2009, the wry, autobiographical sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, which he created and narrated, was a critical hit.
However, Rock’s writer/star/director efforts (2003’s Head of State and 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife) have been subpar, and he has shown little versatility or depth as an actor.
In Top Five, Rock hasn’t exactly branched out as a thespian. Though his chemistry with the expressive Dawson is dynamite, he’s still a comic actor playing a comic actor, fairly straight-up. But the direction is strong, keeping a script overloaded with themes – a Cinderella story, hard-won sobriety, a satirical look at celebrity TV and a famous person’s relationship with the friends and family he left behind – moving along spryly.
Rock’s Andre is an alcoholic who’s been sober for four years. He’s given up stand-up because he’s unsure he can be funny while being straight. He’s the star of a goofy but successful film franchise built around the character Hammy, which requires him to wear a rodent suit and say things like “It’s Hammy time.” Tired of the silliness, he wants to make a “serious” movie, and manages to come up with a stinker called Uprize, a Haitian slave-revolt epic. Top Five is a day in the life of a movie star as he makes the press-junket rounds in New York.
Accompanying him is Dawson’s New York Times profile writer. Andre doesn’t want to have anything to do with her, because her paper’s film reviewer has a hate on for him. Andre’s agent (played by a peppery Kevin Hart), the lone black agent in his office, insists that she be allowed to shadow him for the day and write the piece.
Dawson’s Chelsea Brown, also four years sober, is a single mother looking for her prince. Could it be Andre? There are sparks, but Andre is wrapped up in a looming marriage with a reality-television star played by Gabrielle Union.
Rock does let the pen drop with a highly implausible late-in-the-movie plot development, and the film’s title is derived from a hip-hop debate – who are your Top 5 rappers? – that is extraneous to the film. Still, Top Five finds Rock in an elevated form, at 49. Things change, sometimes for the better.
The title of the Chris Rock’s comedy Top Five has to do with mostly unscripted moments in which characters name their favourite handful of rap artists. Rock, in his character as the conflicted comedian Andre Allen, gave his Top 5 all-time MCs.
Jay Z: Shawn (Jay Z) Carter is the film’s co-producer (along with Kanye West). Just saying.
Nas: As Nasir (Nas) Jones was once a feuding partner of Jay Z, by placing the sublimely talented Illmatic icon in the second slot, Rock picks sides, but still gives respect.
Scarface: Rock has been vocal in his support of the underrated Houston native Brad (Scarface) Jordan, a pioneer and a poet laureate of the street.
Rakim: For inspiration, the writer Rock has a line of Rakim’s – “I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard/ Flip it/ Now it’s a daily word” – on the wall of his office.
Biggie: Rock was raised in Brooklyn and Top Five is New York-set. Big Apple bad boy Biggie Smalls was a notorious player in the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop wars of the 1990s.
LL Cool J: For some reason, Top 5s traditionally include an extra, sixth choice. Rock goes with the lover man. But where’s Mr. West?Report Typo/Error