Chris Rock has provided one thoughtful sound bite after another in the promo run for Top Five. Whether he's writing an essay blasting “White Hollywood,” arguing that the middle class would revolt if they “really knew what being rich was like,” or dishing incendiary political commentary on SNL, Rock has proven to be as sharp and polarizing as ever.
Rock's third effort as a director, Top Five is equally sharp. Rock stars as a comedian named Andre Allen, but the film isn’t a direct parallel to Rock's life or career. It's much more lighthearted. There may be autobiographical elements, but the limbo Andre finds himself in isn't a reflection on Rock's success (or lack thereof). As New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) argues in the film's first few scenes, sometimes a movie is just a movie.
And as far as big-screen entertainment goes, Top Five is a lot of fun. It's a shame producers didn't save it for Christmas weekend, though it's probably too explicit for the whole family. It's the perfect synthesis of everything we’ve come to enjoy from classic Chris Rock stand-up specials and his film/TV vehicles: There's vulgar humor, social commentary, and a deep appreciation for hip-hop.
Andre Allen is a bankable but washed-up Hollywood A-list comedian doing promo around NYC for his new movie, Uprize, an ill-advised venture into awards-baiting drama that chronicles the Haitian revolution. (Yes, Django Unchained is referenced.) Chelsea is the esoteric Times journalist assigned to shadow the star for a profile she's writing on him. For an added layer of pop cultural relevance, Andre is on the verge of marrying Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), a talentless reality TV star. His life and career are the farthest thing from one hundred—nothing a brief trip home and a day spent walking around Greenwich Village and Brooklyn with a film critic won’t fix, right? Not exactly.
As per the title, the film’s crown jewel occurs when Andre and Chelsea fall through his old hood, mix it up with old family and friends, and, inevitably, the "top five" debate comes up. To be clear, this is by no means a “rap movie,” but per Rock’s script, these debates are one of life’s most universal conversations. (Sidebar: It's also worth noting that Top Five features just about every noteworthy black comedian in some capacity; also, it's opening alongside Exodus: Gods and Kings, a film under fire for its lily white cast.)
Andre bricks his move to drama, but Rock's latest foray into directing and acting is largely on-point. But Top Five falters when it wades too deeply into rom-com waters—the series of events that lead to a bad breakup between Chelsea and her boyfriend (Workaholics member Anders Holm) are as hilarious as they are nonsensical.
When the film is playing to Rock’s strength, though, it's gangbusters. His performance opposite Julie Delpy in 2 Nights in Manhattan received high praise, and though most of his checks of late have been from inessential ensemble blockbusters (be gone, Grown Up 2), those smell more of boredom than career desperation. But in Top Five, Rock is reinvigorated, and, most importantly, operating firmly in his wheelhouse. In playing a bizarro version of himself, he maximizes the potential seen in his first two actor-director efforts, Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife. While those movies were enjoyable, especially the latter, Top Five allows Rock to inhabit a character that comes more naturally to him. Andre's walk-and-talk banter with Chelsea allows for commentary on all of his favorite topics, and though the film unfolds over one day, frequent flashbacks allow him to cut loose with X-rated, side-splitting set pieces. There isn't a moment in Top Five that doesn't feel like it's pure Rock.
So what is he saying with Top Five, underneath the current of laughs and amazing cameos? (No spoilers, but Jerry Seinfeld is used fantastically, while the rapper Andre comes across in jail all but steals the movie.) Maybe Rock is dramatizing the very real path his career could’ve gone down. Maybe he’s offering commentary on the bullshit state of pop culture, with its manufactured celebrities and arranged marriages. Or, maybe this time, the movie is just a movie—and a very good one, at that.