Black cinema is in an interesting place right now. Far away from the exploitation cinema of the 70’s it has become an industry unto itself. Growing up from those roots and moving past the typical “hood” movies it has become a full fledged industry. Practically guaranteed money it appeals all demographics and covers all genres. Well that is most genres. We’ve seen everything from horror to historic Oscar bait and everything in between. That is except the Woody Allen style dramedy. That’s where Chris Rock comes in with Top Five.
Chris Rock is Andre Allen, a former standup comedian and recovering alcoholic famous for the bad comedies like the Hammy the Bear movies. It’s the biggest weekend of his life with his marriage to reality TV star Eric Long (Gabrielle Union) and the release of his first serious film Uprize. Throughout the day Andre is being interviewed by Chelsea (Rosario Dawson) for the New York Times, a newspaper that tore apart all of his other movies. Opening up to the reporter he goes through his life and reconnects with his comic roots.
While this isn’t Rock’s first foray in writing and directing it’s definitely his best. Semi-autobiographical in nature it gives the audience a look into the world rarely examined, black fame. Similar to Hollywood Shuffle before it we see how easy it is to be typecast and trying to move beyond these goofy comedy roles. Elevating it above a typical character piece is Rock’s writing. Like his best stand up bits he’s able to inform audiences while still being hilarious. More importantly is how it flips some of the typical black film tropes. Unlike pretty much every Tyler Perry movie Andre isn’t viewed as a villain for being rich. Instead he’s just a guy trying to work things out in his life. The same can be said about Andre’s return to his old neighborhood. Is he mocked for “going Hollywood?” Of course but he’s also welcomed with open arms by friends. Of all things it reminded me of the 2014 documentary Time is Illmatic. Sure he’s a celebrity but he’s welcomed back as opposed to being despised for “selling out.” Little things like this make the movie stand out and feel more realistic.
Helping Rock (essentially playing himself) is a wonderful cast. Getting almost as much screen time as Rock is Rosario Dawson as Chelsea Brown, an ambitious and street smart reporter for the New York Times. It’s a character she’s done before and has perfected. What sticks out is her chemistry with Chris Rock. The two play off each other quite well and you can buy into their budding romance. On the flip side, in the best way possible, is Gabrielle Union as Erica. While she doesn’t get as much screen time she is absolutely perfect as a Kardashian-esque reality star. Again even though the role has been done to death we see her influence in getting Andre to go sober. It’s minor but little things like this makes her more than just a paper thin character.
The people that stole the movie for me were Andre’s friends from his old neighborhood. A who’s who of comedians they are hilariously portrayed by Leslie Jones, Michael Che, Hassan Johnson, Jay Pharoah and Tracy Morgan. Seeing this cast interact with Andre and their surroundings is a great glimpse into where he came from and what informs his sense of humor. Another thing I loved was the cameos. Jerry Seinfeld as a stripper obsessed horn dog is perfect as is Adam Sandler as the husband beaten down by marriage. The best though is by a certain rapper near the end. I won’t reveal who it is but his scene is worth the price of admission.
If I had a complaint it is that the movie is a romantic comedy. I don’t dislike romcoms but the genre does lend itself to certain tropes. Due to this we get things like the liar revealed storyline and the slow motion shot where everything is moving and happy while Andre is depressed. Despite the writing things like this make the whole thing a bit predictable.
In a world where comedies can be pretty cut and paste Top Five is something special. Sure there are the obvious dick jokes there is more to it than that. There’s the biting observation that only Chris Rock can provide up against the backdrop of an Alexander Payne movie. Forgoing the traits of most “black movies” it not only dissects the genre but comes out as one of the best comedies of the year.
And because everyone has to do it with their review of this movie…
MY TOP 5 RAPPERS
If I get a sixth man it’s Kendrick Lamar.