Chris Rock has made no secret in the past of his admiration for Woody Allen. With Top Five, a film that Rock also wrote and directed, the star has finally created his own Woody Allen film, though not in the sense that he’s embraced Upper East Side neuroses and narcissism; Rock has instead made a patently New York story that is one long joke with an audience slaying punch line. This is cinematic stand up, crafted to drop the mic on a comedian whose so scared of failure that he’ll romance it.
As told from its title, Top Five is set in a world where having five favorite hip hop musicians on hand is as seamless a conversation starter as the weather. Rock never leaves Manhattan, but he paints a very unique and personal New York that illustrates biography with simple geography. His Andre Allen slips between Harlem and Midtown, the projects and the press junkets, with the ease of being a member of all arenas—and thus a master of none.
When the movie begins, funnyman Andre (Rock) has decided he will not be funny anymore. Perhaps it is because he apparently only got sober recently, around the same time he stopped doing stand up comedy, or perhaps it’s because his upcoming publicity stunt wedding to reality television queen Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) is too sad to laugh at, but Allen is attempting to reinvent himself as a serious actor.
There is obvious autobiography always present since Top Five is the most ambitious film that Rock has made as either an actor or filmmaker to date, and is filled with knowing parodies of the Hollywood laziness that has crept into the careers of his idols (Eddie Murphy) and his peers (Adam Sandler), which is personified by Andre Allen’s blockbuster franchise Hammy the Bear (a comedy series where he stars as a wisecracking, foulmouthed bear who’s joined the NYPD). However, there is a self-awareness that keeps Rock some worlds apart from Andre. Instead of trying his hand at more challenging comedy, Allen has ignored the advice of his agent (Kevin Hart) and made an Oscar bait picture where he stars as Dutty Boukman, the Haitian leader of the most successful slave rebellion.
To promote this by all accounts awful looking film, Allen is spending the day before his wedding in New York City to do press junkets. Along the way, he meets a challenging and intriguing New York Times reporter named Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) that has come to write a profile on Andre, assuming that he’ll cooperate. Soon, he is reflecting on his life as well as hers while showing off his Uptown origins stacked with comedy talent who never got out of the projects (Sherri Shepherd, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan), as well as the inanity of his press schedule that has him darting with his bodyguard (J.B. Smoove) from junkets to reality television-orchestrated “bachelor parties.” But strangely, if not surprisingly, it’s with the journalist that Andre can truly be himself.
Rock’s latest film is about career anxiety personified in an onscreen alter-ego. Whether as an actor, a stand up comic, or as the soon-to-be husband of a vacuous reality star, Allen is uncomfortable everywhere while Rock, paradoxically, appears at the greatest of ease in this career best film. Switching between a “day in the life narrative” to raunchy flashbacks that border on surrealism alongside their gross out punch lines (watch out for Cedric the Entertainer’s Houston cameo), Top Five has the pacing of a well-engineered set. Yet, the film is still ultimately a “Streets of New York” love story between his character and a journalist who is also a jack of all (word) trades. As a result, the comedy’s biggest insight is that it plays like a love story parable between Rock and his press.
Dawson and Rock have a natural chemistry that is tit for tat in its sweet nothings. While the rest of the film feels freewheeling with its rotating cast of comedians, their spotlight is zeroed on the destructive dependency of an artist and his critics, suggesting a possible symbiosis that Top Five playfully explores, but could have riffed even more on. It also helps that Dawson is a hell of an actress, elevating comedy to something slightly more real.
The funny thing is that for better or worse, the title is still what Top Five is counting down to: a crowd-pleasing and audience-winning laugher. There are terrific cameos and insights that abound, but the film’s need to pulsate to the rhythm of the Comedy Cellar prevents it from likewise realizing the full humanity Rock has often found on that cramped stage. Whereas the second half of Top Five puts its cards on the table, much of the rest of the movie begins (and ends) like first night jitters with an overeager need to please. The aforementioned time-bending flashbacks play like great non-sequiturs for a club, but take away from the authenticity that the centralized story finds so well in Andre and Chelsea’s endless strolls.
But make no mistake; this movie easily succeeds in its need to entertain. Top Five has sleeper hit written all over it and will be slaying them in the aisles by this time next week. But maybe for his next ode to Manhattan (and its filmmakers), Rock will not be so afraid to drop the mic altogether and make his top one.