All words: Rachel Kurzius
Top Five opens with a conversation that sets the tone for the film. Actor Andre Allen (Chris Rock), described as “one flop away from Dancing With the Stars,” and New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) are having an argument you’ve probably seen hashed out on the internet, except this version is hilarious. Does everything mean something deeper or can a joke ever be “just a joke?” Andre Allen says a joke can just be a joke, full stop, but writer/director Chris Rock seems less convinced. The one thing that Top Five makes clear as day is that a joke must, first and foremost, make you laugh. The movie clears this hurdle with ease.
A Charlie Rose interview sets up the audience with all of the essential information about Allen. A stand-up comedian who hit it big in the movies, Allen he is best known for his series of films about a wisecracking bear named Hammy, who we see in trailers Tropic Thunder-style. But now Allen has eschewed comedy. He’s promoting his new movie Uprize, a self-serious period piece that he hopes will be the “Haitian Django.” Clips from the film show that he’s probably headed for Dancing With the Stars.
Top Five takes place during one day in New York City that would impress 24’s Jack Bauer. In addition to his media blitz, Allen has a bachelor party before his wedding to a Bravo reality star (Gabrielle Union) the following morning on the West Coast. His agent (Kevin Hart) says that this is the best possible thing for his career, in one of many brutal observations about the media. In another, Allen goes to Sirius XM headquarters [disclosure: I work for Sirius XM] for a series of interviews about the film, where he can’t seem to please anyone. The Opie and Anthony Show (now the Opie and Jim Show, because Anthony Cumia was fired for a series of racist tweets) presses Allen on why he would make a movie about killing 50,000 white people. Sway, a host on one of the hip hop channels, wants to know why only a small portion of those deaths take place on-screen.
This is where Allen diverges from Chris Rock, despite their superficial similarities. While Allen bumbles through his media obligations, Chris Rock’s press campaign for Top Five has been incredible, including an insightful New York Magazine interview and an editorial in the Hollywood Reporter calling out the industry’s issues with race. Top Five responds to Rock’s criticism features one of the most incredible casts ever into one movie: Tracy Morgan, Sherri Shepherd, Kevin Hart, Romany Malco, Michael Che, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharoah, J.B. Smoove, Hassan Johnson, Anders Holm, Cedric the Entertainer, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, and a number of cameos I won’t spoil. Some of them play themselves, some of them play characters. They’re all able to convey real humanity during their short screen time, and the industry would be wise to make a movie about any of these supporting players.
Rock’s direction is self-assured, as he mixes different styles of filmmaking and genre. While always rooted in comedy, there are elements of found footage (including one that looks like the Rodney King video), an absurd flashback that achieves a fantastical tone through exposed lighting and the soundtrack (Questlove, who did the music, does incredible work throughout the movie), a horror film-style tracking in a liquor store as Allen struggles with sobriety, and head-on interviews with people in Allen’s life that Dawson’s character takes for her profile of the actor. This works at times, like during the flashback, and at other times feels jumbled. For instance, Dawson and Rock’s chemistry anchors the film with a romantic comedy-style narrative arc. Unfortunately, Rock chooses to include some of the worst elements of the genre, like a ridiculous third-act hurdle in a movie that simply doesn’t need it. More didactic speeches about fear and sobriety don’t land, either, especially when Rock so ably conveys the message through good direction in the liquor store.
Despite these qualms, Top Five manages to feel imaginative and familiar at the same time. Most importantly, it is as funny as they come. You’ll have a much better time than Allen does.