Your mileage may vary on inside-track Hollywood comedies. Among the greats, there are biting satires like The Player or Swimming With Sharks and broader, sillier works like Tropic Thunder or Bowfinger, but the kind of rarefied air in which they largely unfold can sometimes be suffocating.
Thankfully, that’s not the case with Top Five, Chris Rock’s first project as a writer-director since 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife, and inarguably his best so far. With a semi-autobiographical approach, the film clearly has a lot of influences from other films but thrives on a brand of charm that is entirely its own.
Andre Allen (Rock) is a stand-up comedian turned movie star who is best known for a trilogy of cringe-making comedy movies in which he stars as a crime-fighting bear called Hammy. He’s also a recovering alcoholic, struggling to get his fans to take him seriously in the run-up to his heavily publicised wedding to Kardashian-like Erica Long, (Gabrielle Union.)
To promote his latest film Uprize, a widely maligned film in which Allen plays Haitian revolutionary Dutty Boukman, Andre agrees to be interviewed by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown, (Rosario Dawson) despite having endured the slings and arrows of her newspaper’s film critic for years. As Chelsea gently probes for something she can build into a more substantial profile, Andre has to come to terms with himself and his public image.
The film takes place over the course of the opening day for Uprize, with Andre and Chelsea wandering around the streets of New York as she conducts her interview and he gradually opens up about himself. In this regard, it’s most reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, albeit in the rapid and tangential register of Rock’s own stand-up routines.
The result is more Kevin Smith than Woody Allen, but that’s no bad thing. If you enjoy Smith’s brand of filthy monologuing, you should enjoy passages such as Andre’s screed about the original Planet Of The Apes opening the day before a significant historical event and Chelsea’s anecdote about her increasingly discomfited sex life.
Sullivan’s Travels, High Fidelity and Funny People all loom in the background too, but it never comes off as derivative and that’s partly down to how personal this is for Rock. Looking at the awful comedy sequels in which his character has starred, it can’t be a coincidence that he wrote the film in his trailer while shooting Grown Ups 2.
In between cute dialogues with Chelsea, the press junket circuit is also up for parody, as Andre tries to reconcile the historical importance of Uprize with his own comedic USP, with many interviewers wanting to know about Hammy sequels or simply asking him why he isn’t funny any more.
Having been on the majority side of a roundtable interview, I found that stuff funny and well observed, but it might not necessarily go over as well with a general audience. Likewise, I winced and laughed out loud at once at the sight of a billboard for Andre’s passion project where he mugs and wields a machete, with a pull quote that merely calls the film “Interesting”.
We’ve seen films like this before, with artists martyring themselves to their public perception, most recently in Oscar hopefuls Birdman and Whiplash. This isn’t as heavy as either of those, but the air is a little thinner as a result and in lesser hands, it probably would have ran out of breath much faster.
Where Top Five really shines is in the Before-esque tracking shots, with Rock on likeable, fast-talking but vulnerable form as a wounded ego and Dawson at her radiant best as she cuts through his bullshit (think of her similar role in Smith’s Clerks II, except she shares top billing this time.)
There’s the inevitable bevy of independently-spirited cameos from Rock’s Hollywood friends (including one performer whose late, unpredictable musical number may well represent 2015’s finest cameo work) but as a director, Rock is great at generating the same level of chemistry he enjoys with Dawson between everyone else too, even in very short bursts.
As a stylised self-portrait, Top Five is the furthest thing from a vanity project imaginable. It’s never cynical, but it still drops some well-observed truth bombs about the nature of celebrity, within the bounds of a sweet romantic comedy. It’s a grand leap forward for Rock as a filmmaker and even if it’s not one of the top five best films of the year, we think he’d be perfectly OK with that.
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