Consistent Laughs Evade Chris Rock In "Top Five"

On paper, “Top Five” is the romantic comedy that Chris Rock has been building up to for decades. His unique brand of blunt observational humor is the perfect weapon to combat goopy genre tropes. Tongue sharpened with years of service on the notoriously brutal stand-up circuit, Rock is nearly peerless in his age bracket, rivaled only by a few famous friends who unsurprisingly show up here.

The project has all the makings of a cinematic victory lap – Rock’s story told in Rock’s words – but in the end, its peaks and valleys fit comfortably with the star’s rocky movie career.

Fear is inherent in major success. Rock knows this, “Top Five” knows this, and audiences are likely to clue in pretty quickly. “Career high” is another way of saying “it’s all downhill from here,” and the oft-accompanying side effect of success – creative freedom – is an even more terrifying prospect. Apart from family, who’s going to tell Chris Rock he’s making a mistake? In the face of all of this – perhaps, because of this – Rock loads “Top Five” with so many ideas that it becomes the top-heavy ordeal he either feared or hoped for. It’s hard to tell.

Rock is so closely intertwined with his character here, Andre Allen, that it’s often hard to differentiate the two. And that’s the point. Allen is a movie star who’s been defined by a series of ridiculous action-comedies and, tired of being pigeonholed, has mounted an unsolicited cinematic interpretation of the Haitian slave rebellion.

But there’s also an impending loveless marriage to a reality show star (Gabrielle Union), his obvious crush on the woman interviewing him for a New York Times piece (Rosario Dawson), a rocky relationship with his extended family, his struggles with alcoholism, and the chasm of insecurity that makes up Andre Allen, the man. There are so many moving parts here that Rock (deliberately?) stacks the deck against himself, only to find some admittedly great moments amidst a storm of half-baked storylines and underwritten characters.

“Top Five” consists of some seriously shaggy storytelling, showcasing so many of Rock’s famous friends that it unwittingly mirrors the emotional neediness of its lead. Concurrently, Rock the writer-director asks a lot of great questions as to the nature of fame without answering any of them, content to let them marinate for a scene or two and then move on, like Kevin Hart’s historically useless first act cameo. Rock’s brief use of Hart borders on muscle-flexing, as if to say “Watch me call in a burgeoning superstar and then not even use him!”

Attentive viewers will note the use of jump rope as a metaphor for Allen’s desire to take risks without actually taking any. As he entertains the idea of jumping in without ever doing it, the film’s problems come into full view – it’s simple when it should be complex, complex when it should be simple. It’s an on-the-nose visual metaphor that tries to add subtext to a scene that doesn’t need it, undermining its own point by underlining it so heavily.

When Rock’s best comedic sensibilities collide with his evolving skills as a filmmaker, that’s when “Top Five” hits its stride. Especially in its third act. A cameo by a troubled hip-hop artist is the best kind of inspired lunacy, while its sweetly romantic end-note is just what an otherwise bizarrely chauvinistic film needs.

The film targets women and gay men with plenty of ineffectual cheap shots, proving as lyrically tone deaf as the music of some its undeniably gifted producers (Jay Z, Kanye West). If Rock did have something explicit in mind about sexism and homophobia, it comes out exceptionally garbled. If they’re just jokes, they make for another disharmonious layer to an infrequently hilarious comedy.

The great scenes and ideas at the core of “Top Five” make a strong case for the talents of Chris Rock, no more than when, 90 minutes in, he ascends to the stage at Manhattan’s Comedy Cellar and finally seems comfortable. And that’s probably the point, the idea of an artist at war with himself, at the cost of being artistically inarticulate. To find himself, he must do what frightens him – but not before talking at length about how much it frightens him.

Too much of the piece is jumbled for the unconverted to wade through, with Rock still preaching to the same, excitable choir he’s always been preaching to. The high notes are higher than ever, his penchant for uproarious comedy intact, but his cinematic voice remains inexplicably lost in the din.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 12, 2014
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Chris Rock
Screenwriter: Chris Rock
Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, Sherri Shepherd, Kevin Hart, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, JB Smoove, Jay Pharoah, Anders Holm
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use)