To be honest, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Chris Rock in top form. Most of his film work lately has been supporting other people’s projects, and while that’s all well and good when he’s working with Neil LaBute on Death at a Funeral, it’s disappointing to see him go to waste in tepid fare like What to Expect When You’re Expecting or, worse yet, Adam Sandler movies.
But the man has a solid voice of his own, not only as an actor but as a writer and director; we saw its range in Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife, neither of which got the attention it deserved. And now he closes out 2014 with Top Five, his best work to date, and one of the funniest movies in a year that could really use it.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a former comedic actor who’s gone through some rough patches before now trying to be taken seriously with Uprize, a film about the Haitian slave uprising. Some people want to draw a real-world parallel, and if pressed it seems the clearest reference is to Martin Lawrence’s career, with Andre’s “Hammy the Bear” character subbing in for Lawrence’s “Big Momma”. But if Rock drew some inspiration from Lawrence, it’s hardly meant to be a coded version of his life specifically, since all that background is just setup.
The Friday of his film’s release finds Andre in his hometown of New York City, while his reality-TV star fiancée Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) heads off to prepare for their reality-TV wedding, which Andre seems less than enthused about. He has to hang back to work promotion for the movie, including a long profile interview for the New York Times, which he hates since their movie critic savaged his last comedy. But at least they’re sending Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) to tag along with him and his lecherous assistant (J.B. Smoove) for the day.
The resulting walk-and-talk feels a lot like one of Richard Linklater’s Before films; I wouldn’t be surprised if Rock picked up the idea from his work with Julie Delpy on Two Days in New York. But it’s not all one long wander through Manhattan, though seriously I would love to see Rock and Dawson’s characters doing just that. Rock cuts it up with all sorts of comedic scenes. There are flashbacks to Andre’s “bottom”, before he entered recovery for his alcoholism. There’s an interlude with his family (Sherri Shepherd and Tracy Morgan, among others). At Andre’s bachelor party — planned, funded, and taped by Erica’s reality show, naturally — he gets marriage advice from Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Whoopi Goldberg.
Rock runs the board here in style, from highbrow to lowbrow, and almost all of it works. So, knowing full well that every other critic out there will pull the same schtick, let’s run down my own top five:
- The Sirius XM promo
- J.B. Smoove getting shut down
- Jazz standards in the lockup
- Jerry Seinfeld making it rain
- Hammy the Beer
But aside from the strictly funny bits, there’s a lot of care that’s gone into the story, from integrating elements of a recovery narrative without reducing them to stereotypes, to recontextualizing the Cinderella story. Rock has done a fantastic job all around here, and Top Five should easily make it into anyone’s list of the best comedies of 2014.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: close, but I’m going to give it a fail.