Top Five: Shake Well. Serve Immediately

Back in November, the New Yorker ran a profile of star stand-up and sometime auteur Chris Rock. The article framed the then-pending release of Top Five–Rock’s latest in an erratic series of bids for crossover film-stardom–as the comedian’s last chance to “crack” Hollywood and package himself as a leading man. The bulk of Rock’s quotes in the piece are characterized by what sounds like a consciously curtailed optimism: “Even if the movie doesn’t make a dime,” he says, “I’ve figured out the tone of movie I should be in.”

I’d have trouble making a confident wager in favor of Top Five‘s financial success–it has jokes, scenes and moments for almost everybody, which could result in a target demographic of nobody–but the second part of Rock’s claim is definitely true. It’s like he’s tapped into a vein of undiscovered cinematic treasures, and is pumping it for all it’s worth. You sense Rock’s self-discovery at nearly every turn, and come away feeling this seasoned provocateur  is surprised as we are to find his filmic sweet spot rests in the razor-sharp yet totally oddball territory at the intersection of Woody Allen skepticism, ballsy gross-out humor, and a Coen Brothers-ish interest in the eccentricity of the everyday. Watching Top Five–an already pleasurable experience–serves up the additional excitement of looking forward to the work Rock will make in years to come, as he hones his voice and learns to sew his influences and enthusiasms together with some slightly less visible stitches.

Which is to say: while Top Five pulses with energy from the get-go, it takes more than a moment to find its groove. This early jerkiness comes from a puppy-doggish plethora of ideas, rather than a cynical bid to crowd-please, but it’s still off-putting. Much of the stiltedness comes from the borrowed Woody-isms: the film’s cringeworthy opening is a two-shot of Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) and Andre Allen (Rock) strolling a New York City street. “I’m telling you, everything means something,” Andre is saying. “No, everything does not mean something,” insists Chelsea. “Sometimes a movie–is just a movie.” (Ooph.) Obviously, Allen originated the walking shot of the overly talky, worked-up New Yorkers, and has never shied away from stunningly direct dialogue. (At the start of his 2004 film Melinda and Melinda, a woman pauses a remarkably didactic dinner party to ask: “Is there a deeper reality in comedy or tragedy? Who can even make such a judgment?” To which the only response is Idk girl, let’s watch this movie and find out!). This isn’t to say that Rock’s absorption of some Woody-ethos is a bad thing, it’s just clear it’ll take a few more tries before he graduates from homage to hitting home.

Top Five follows a hectic day in the life of fading comedy star and former stand-up Andre Allen as he struggles to generate buzz–in fact, he’d settle for passing interest–in the latest in his recent series of failed “serious” films. Tailed by the sharp-tongued and fetching Chelsea, a Times reporter and soon-to-be revealed kindred spirit, Andre’s day zigs and zags from publicity slog to domestic upheaval (a darkly sketched subplot is the planning of Andre’s circus wedding to a reality TV bombshell) to downright chaos. The film doesn’t really feel well in its skin until a sequence involving Dawson, Rock and a whole host of great black comedians, set in an apartment in the projects. The diegetic excuse for all these exuberant cameos is Andre showing Chelsea the place he grew up. In part, the film relaxes here because Andre Allen is relaxing: we’re meant to like and understand him more in this homey and claustrophobic context, away from the brainless Q&A questions of white college students (“Were you the class clown growing up?”) and the prying cameras of his fiancé’s Bravo show. But the scene also excels due to its expertly rhythmic pacing: the happy rowdiness of Andre’s homecoming–affectionate mockery, lots of laughter, and the seemingly perpetual listing of one’s “top five” (rappers, for the uninitiated; also apparently you always name six)–is periodically interrupted by shots from Chelsea’s raw interview “footage”. Here, a device is used to add appealingly human texture to the story rather than to just fasten on rivets. It also gives Rock the chance to pack in some bite-sized gems of slyly funny observational humor. “I’m funnier than Andre. I’ve always been funnier,” notes his friend Craig (Hassan Johnson), sprawled across the sofa in a T-shirt. “I mean, I’m not stand-up funny but like you put me in a situation and I’m a lot funnier than Andre.” Rock’s concise capturing of this all-too-familiar and sweetly naive layman’s claim is so satisfying, and proves Rock’s films can successfully borrow from yet another brand of popular comedy–the mockumentary style, which revels in affectionate portraiture of the blissfully un-self-aware.

I still can’t totally decide my opinion of the Dawson-Rock coupling. Both are immensely appealing performers (by the way, if one of the questions Top Five implicitly asks is “Can Chris Rock be a leading man?” the answer is an unqualified yes. He knows how to pull all the levers of his boyish charm, face scrunching into mockery, then pleasure, then disbelief.) But just as the movie’s various comedic modes are well executed yet poorly integrated, Dawson and Rock seem to be more bouncing off each other’s shiny surfaces than striking actual sparks. As the plot hurtles forward, and the attendant feelings and complications accrue, Chelsea finds herself the unwitting agent of Andre’s downward spiral, then the architect of his redemption (women saving Andre is a light motif of the film). At the movie’s emotional climax, she leads him to New York’s famed Comedy Cellar, and dares him to perform an impromptu set. The idea is open mic night as identity reclamation. That Andre nails it when he takes the stage is no surprise, and the triumph of his all too smooth return to form feels a little easy. It’s the coming-down off the natural high, however–manifested in an exchange between Chelsea and Andre–that constitutes the more resonant catharsis. Chelsea asks what allowed him to get up and do the set. “When I met you this morning,” Andre says, “you mentioned this show that I did at your school like fifteen years ago.” He pauses. “And I remembered it.” Rock’s eyes boggle at the unlikeliness of this. “Good show,” he says. With these two words, Rock transmits a lot: the soft exuberance one feels reconnecting with a core and basic love, a pro’s respect for the complex calculus involved in engineering a “good show,” and a reverence for the pleasure that comes with delivering one. It’s the most real moment I’ve seen in a movie in years–no doubt because of its unmistakable connection to Rock’s actual prolific, capricious career. For all of Rock and Dawson’s charm and heat, the romance at the core of Top Five turns out to be the one between a man and his craft.

Grade: A-

an exciting surge of auteur-energy from Chris Rock