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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Review: Top Five (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Chris Rock
Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson

It's never just a movie. Whether it's a serious film about the Haitian Revolution, or a silly film about a bear who is also a police officer, it means something, and the fact that it exists and how it is received mean something, too. Coming at a time when issues of diversity in film and television have been a particularly hot topic, Chris Rock's Top Five, which tackles that issue in ways that are both subtle and direct, has the benefit of feeling especially timely. It also, however, has the benefit of being an extremely good movie, one which is funny, sharply written, and of all the films that Rock has made (with the exception of the 2009 documentary Good Hair), this is the only one that comes anywhere near being as trenchant as his stand-up.

In Top Five, Rock stars (in addition to writing and directing) as Andre Allen, a stand-up turned movie star who is trying to take his career in a more serious direction by starring in the Haitian Revolution drama "Uprize." His efforts are hindered, however, by his past success in the film series "Hammy the Bear," in which he dons a bear costume to play a police officer, and by his tabloid friendly engagement to reality tv show star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), both of which make people sort of disinclined to see him as a serious artist. As a means of promoting "Uprize," and trying to counteract some of the already negative reaction to it, he agrees to spend the day being interviewed by Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), a reporter for the New York Times, opening up to her about how he hit rock bottom after a night of hard partying ending in an arrest and how that (and Erica) prompted him to get sober, and how his sobriety has affected his career since then; and letting Chelsea in on some of the most private aspects of his life by letting her accompany him to pick up the rings for his wedding to Erica (and witness his surprise when he learns that, at her tv show producer's prompting, she's substituted the ring he picked out for her in favor of something more gaudy) and by bringing her back to his old neighborhood to meet his family and friends, whose vigorous debate about the top five rappers of all time gives the film its title. She also joins him for some of his promotional appearances for "Uprize," during which he's forced to field a lot of questions about whether there will be another "Hammy the Bear" movie.

Things begin to take a turn between Andre and Chelsea after she talks him into dismissing his bodyguard (J.B. Smoove) so that they can just walk around together like normal people, and after Chelsea runs into her boyfriend at a hotel and realizes that he was there with someone else. Chelsea, who like Andre is a recovering alcoholic, instinctively makes a break for a liquor store but ultimately thinks better of breaking her sobriety and instead tells Andre about her relationship with her boyfriend and the signs she feels she ignored in order to keep it together. Inevitably, the two end up in each other's arms but then the evening takes a dark turn when Andre learns that, while Chelsea is who she says she is, she also has another identity as a writer via a pseudonym, a discovery which leaves Andre feeling betrayed and set up. After parting ways with Chelsea, Andre takes a self-destructive adventure which threatens to undo all of the work he's done to get himself and his career on track since he stopped drinking, and which threatens to end his relationship with Erica (though it also illuminates the relationship in a way which might ultimately save him).

For a good portion of its running time, Top Five is the sort of "walking and talking" movie reminiscent of Woody Allen or of Richard Linklater's Before movies, with Rock and Dawson's characters just riffing off each other, talking about seemingly random things but revealing much about themselves in the process. There's a relaxed, unforced feeling to these scenes that serves the film well and gives it a sense of flow that emphasizes the dialogue and character development in a really effective way. The two characters make several stops along the way, but the early scenes nevertheless feel unencumbered in a way that later scenes do not once the plot rears its head to assert the dominance of narrative over character. This happens when Andre makes his discovery about Chelsea, and suddenly a movie which felt very loose up until that point starts to feel very contained by the needs of seeing this arc through. Although this doesn't in any way ruin the movie (in fact some of the best scenes occur after this point), it's a contrivance that feels unnecessary given how effortlessly the film was carrying on up until that point. Still, though I think it takes a misstep in this respect, Top 5 ultimately finishes as strongly as it started, getting back to what makes it special in the first place (the characters) and directing its focus accordingly. I'm not a big fan of Rock's previous efforts as a writer/director, but Top 5 is a huge leap forward both in terms of content and execution and demonstrates that he is capable of transferring the electrifying bite of his stand-up to film.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Top 5 is how much it manages to say without even seeming to say it. There are moments when the film is really direct about issues of race and, in particular, the ways in which the white people who form the center of institutionalized power are comfortable engaging with people of color (for example, a scene in which a white radio engineer encourages Andre to put some "stank" on the line reading he's doing for a promo, cluelessly encouraging Andre to make himself as outrageously "othered" as possible for the amusement and comfort of a white audience), but Top 5 can be quite subtle about it, too, letting the audience drawn its own connections and conclusions. There's the fact that Andre's biggest hits are the "Hammy" films which have the effect of reducing whatever threat he might present as a wealthy, successful black man by obscuring his race behind a bear suit and then by rendering him ridiculous and thereby removing whatever power he might have (we only see brief clips from the "Hammy" movies, but it's enough to get the impression that Hammy/Andre is the joke in that series), as well as the fact that "Uprize" is a flop and when Andre stops in at a theater to check out the reaction he finds it half empty while there's an enormous line up for the latest Madea movie, the suggestion again being that predominantly white audiences will embrace black performers on very limited terms and only when the characters are flamboyant enough to make them objects of fun. Without being in any way heavy handed about it, Rock says a lot about how race factors into pop culture and how that culture works to maintain the status quo rather than allow for change, and it says a lot that the mere fact that Top Five exists as it does feels like a statement in and of itself because of how seldom so many black performers appear together in a mainstream, Hollywood movie (the long list of supporting players includes Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Taraji P. Henson, Tracy Morgan, Gabourey Sidibe, Ben Vereen, and, in a hilarious cameo, DMX). Top Five has its flaws, but it is so on point in what it's saying, and so generally well put together in order to express that point of view, that it can't be viewed as anything but a roaring success as a film.

2 comments:

Wendell Ottley said...

I love this movie. It's easily Rock's most poignant film while at the same time being outrageously funny. Excellent review.

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Norma Desmond said...

This is his best without question.