Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Top Five feels like a spiritual sibling of Woody Allen, right down to its opening scene. Andre Allen (Chris Rock) paces the streets of New York City alongside Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a writer for the New York Times tasked with interviewing Andre before his new film opens in theaters. Their street-side conversation revolves around having a black president, only for Andre to insist that things have not changed in society; for instance, a black man could never call a taxi in the hustling, bustling New York City! The scene that transpires works entirely against that notion, and acts as an embodiment of the film’s strengths. Chris Rock, as writer-director-actor, has captured a film that feels typical of his comedic style, using touchy subjects as a means of self-exploration in the hopes of achieving strong social commentary. While the film captures those moments, and provides continually uproarious laughs, the second half falls underneath flimsy dramatic points and never meshes into a coherent thematic message.
Andre is a comedian turned film star with plenty of successes: he was once named the funniest man in America, had a successful film franchise with Hammy the Bear (where the third film made over $600 million worldwide), and has an upcoming marriage to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). Yet Andre has been sober for a few years and doesn’t find himself all that funny, leading to a potentially disastrous decision to change his career. In an attempt to make a serious film, he stars in “Uprize!”, a dramatic re-telling of the 1791 Haitian Revolution that gets universally panned by critics and audiences alike. Everyone wants a new Hammy the Bear film, which from our brief glimpse seems like a Lethal Weapon-type with Andre in a large bear costume wielding a machine gun alongside Luis Guzman. Andre doesn’t have that desire to get back on the stand-up stage or star in those dumb comedies, as he says. He wants to be serious.
Yet when he meets Chelsea, things change. He begins to question why he would want to marry Erica when she is more concerned with capturing a good television shot rather than actual romance. Andre’s talks with Chelsea not only reveal his character and his past struggles, but it shows the two’s connection and how they actually counter one another with their beliefs. Their past experiences inform their present and future, and they are drastically different in upbringings and career paths. That makes for some fascinating conversations, ones that carry the brunt of the film’s dramatic heft. Rock and Dawson are terrific in their roles, with Rock providing a man struggling with the peak of his fame while trying to find himself in a world that doesn’t accept him now that he’s finally his normal self. Flashbacks to memorable misfortunes in Andre’s past make for some funny, if also off-putting, comedic moments. Chelsea’s romantic life creates a hilarious moment that won’t easily leave viewers’ minds.
So why is it that Top Five never forms a substantive message about fame and the public spotlight? Chris Rock is an immensely talented man and an even better comedian; he produces some outstanding laughs that make for some imminently watchable material. But for every moment that provides a hearty laugh, there’s another moment that follows with a sour taste. Misogyny runs rampant in any scene involving women that are not Chelsea; many scenes take place in dance or strip clubs where every woman is seemingly sexualized and treated as a lesser-than because of their femininity. There’s even an uncomfortable exchange on the phone between Andre and Erica that feels horribly timed and misguided. The film’s third act falls apart in favor of melodrama and often forgettable developments. A friendship between Rock’s Andre and J.B. Smoove’s childhood friend/bodyguard provide some solid developments, yet the latter catcalls constantly and makes for some uncomfortably unfunny moments. Top Five has some genuinely insightful commentary and intelligent laughs, but its aimlessness hinders the far-reaching ambition of its narrative.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)