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Review: Top Five (2014)

Top Five (2014)

Directed by: Chris Rock

Premise: A comedian (Chris Rock) spends the day with a reporter (Rosario Dawson) as his new movie opens and he plans a wedding with his reality-TV star fiancé (Gabrielle Union).

What Works: Comedian Chris Rock has become one of the most popular figures in standup comedy and like a lot of successful stage comics he eventually made the transition to television and feature films with voiceover parts in the Madagascar movies, acting roles in comedic films like Dogma, and his own eponymous sitcom with Everybody Hates Chris. Rock is a very good comic performer but he isn’t much of actor. When he’s cast well he does a good job but as a thespian Rock has a limited range. With Top Five, which Chris Rock wrote, directed, and stars in, he reflects on his career by playing a character who is a fictionalized version of himself or at least a fictionalized version of his public persona. Just enough of this character is embellished to give Rock some distance between himself and the role but Top Five consistently surprises with how honest it is. Rock plays a standup actor who has achieved great success with a series of silly action movies but now he wants to be taken seriously by starring in a drama about a Haitian slave revolution. He is also engaged to a reality TV personality, played by Gabrielle Union, and the actor’s artistic aspirations of respectability are undercut by his public image as a celebrity. The movie sets up Rock’s character as an underdog fighting the niche that success and other people’s expectations have boxed him into but the filmmakers take the subversive step of avoiding easy wish fulfillment. Instead, Rock’s character goes through a process of acknowledging that the dramatic movie he’s made isn’t very good and recognizing the limits of his talent. This leaves Rock’s character attempting to figure out his next move which he does through his conversations with a reporter played by Rosario Dawson. Rock and Dawson make a charming screen pair; like many of the best romantic couples they bounce off of each other both emotionally and intellectually and their conversations reveal much about their characters but also explore topics of celebrity, race, and art.

What Doesn’t: Top Five is quite similar to the 2008 Judd Apatow film Funny People in that the lead actor plays a fictionalized version of himself whose career is in decline. Top Five is also comparable to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2014 feature Birdman, which also featured an actor trying to achieve respectability by breaking from his most successful role. By comparison to both Funny People and Birdman, Top Five comes up short. The performances and plotting of Top Five aren’t quite as strong as those of Funny People nor does the film contain the energy and ambition of Birdman. Like similar films, Top Five blends the story on the screen with reality by incorporating references to existing films and featuring cameos by Hollywood figures. The cameos become a little much in Top Five; they don’t serve a purpose except to provide fleeting jolts of recognition.  The other problem of Top Five is its tendency to redundantly dwell on the same point. This is indicative of Chris Rock’s weakness as a performer. Rock’s standup performances were sometimes flawed by a tendency to overemphasize the same idea, beating the point to death by stating it over and over again, each time louder than the last. That happens quite a bit in Top Five and a lot of parts in the film feel isolated from one another; the story is a series of fragmented pieces that don’t quite coalesce into a narrative whole.

Bottom Line: Top Five is the third feature film that Chris Rock has directed and he’s showing steady growth as a filmmaker. The movie is strained by some of its excesses but those flaws are far outweighed by its sincerity and the likable chemistry between Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson.

Episode: #523 (January 4, 2015)