Chris Rock enters into Woody Allen territory with his new movie Top Five. During the opening scene, as Rock's hero Andre Allen strolls down a Manhattan avenue engaged in lively debate with reporter Chelsea Brown (co-star Rosario Dawson), Chelsea mentions that sometimes a "movie is just a movie." That sounds like an homage to Allen's 1980 film Stardust Memories, in which two characters are discussing the symbolic significance of the Rolls-Royce in the movie they have just watched, and one of them agonizingly concludes that "it represented... his car."
Andre Allen, like Woody's Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories, and like Joel McCrea's John Sullivan, from Preston Sturges' classic Sullivan's Travels (1941), has built a career based on making people laugh. For reasons that will become clear during the course of the story, he is no longer interested in that. He wants to make serious movies. Andre is about to release a movie about a slave uprising in Haiti.
Chris Rock has a lot to say about race and humor and culture, and about where an artist fits into that discussion. Especially a black artist. It's hard to think about anyone better suited to talk about that right now. Though there may be certain lines of descent linking Top Five to Sturges and Allen, Top Five's truest progenitor is Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend's ahead-of-its-time comedy from 1978 about a stereotyped actor trying to break free. Townsend brought a great deal of personal experience to his movie, and one suspects Rock does as well. Ultimately, two significant failings prevent Top Five from being a great movie. But there is more than enough quality material -- material to make you laugh and material to make you think -- to ensure that is remains quite good.
Let's talk about that good stuff first.
Rock fills Top Five with great characters. That is a hallmark of excellent writers. Sturges and Allen (who along with Billy Wilder are arguably the greatest American comic screenwriters) never fail to offer a wealth of memorable characters. Rock's movie seems to have everyone in Hollywood showing up at one point or another, and many of them are outstanding. Early on, Cedric the Entertainer threatens to run away with the movie during his brief stint as Jazzy Dee ("the MAN in Houston"). Toward the end, rapper DMX does a magnificently wretched jail-cell performance of "Smile," an old Charlie Chaplin tune. In between, Rock has Allen pay a visit to old friends, and those brief scenes feature first-rate work by the likes of Sherri Shepherd, Jay Pharoah, Tracy Morgan, and Leslie Jones.
Rock also fills Top Five with big ideas, another hallmark of great writers. The plot of the movie is set up as a free-wheeling interview between performer and reporter, and some of the best sequences involve the rapid-fire back and forth debate over matters, both personal and political. Rock, as both writer and actor, has the ability to make such potentially ponderous material very fresh. Race is a central issue, but Rock is clearly interested in moving beyond that discussion. Substance abuse, fame, and the purpose of art all figure into the story. Though some issues are invariably colored by race, others are rooted in broader humanity. As a result, Rock manages to be both racially specific and universal. No small feat.
Finally, and I can't stress this enough, Top Five is very funny. It is overflowing with comic talent. Iconic figures like Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Whoopi Goldberg make cameo appearances. Kevin Hart, maybe the most popular film comedian in the world today, does a signature fast-talking scene as Andre's agent and I don't think I even saw his name in the credits. In addition to being funny, there are very interesting conversations about the nature of comedy (though a two-second Bill Cosby reference seems a little off-putting.) Like John Sullivan -- the director from Sullivan's Travels who ultimately concludes that comedy just might have more societal value than all the heavy drama in the world -- Andre Allen will have a similar epiphany. And when the time comes for him to deliver the laughs, he does not fail.
So what are the two failings? First, Rock is a great performer, but he is not a great actor. I say that with a fair amount of self-consciousness, since film critics who make such pronouncements come in for some pretty heavy abuse in Top Five. But it's hard to ignore. When he calls on himself to do the fast stuff -- obviously the fast comedy, but also the fast anger or fast frustration or fast... anything -- Rock is very much in his element. It's when he has to slow down and start exploring subtler emotions that I begin to see an actor reciting lines. Rock is okay in such moments. He just isn't great. And since Andre Allen's breakdown and rebirth are at the heart of the story, that matters.
But the second failing matters more, because it cuts into Rock's greatest strength, which is as a writer. In a sense, Top Five is a romantic comedy, and if there is one truism about romantic comedies, it's this: the audience has to root for the couple to end up together. That isn't the case in Top Five. It has nothing to do with Rosario Dawson, a fine actress who does rather well as Chelsea. It's the way Chelsea is written. She isn't real, at least not as real as the others we get to see. Sure, she has struggles and problems, but those problems do not grow out of her own weaknesses and conflicts. This is a crucial point. Most of the major characters in Top Five suffer through some sort of crisis or humiliation. But Chelsea's humiliations are not of her own doing. They are imposed on her by others. She isn't the problem. The script tries to suggest that her bad judgment has put her in these situations, but that never really rings true. Essentially, she is always right. Even when she does suffer humiliation at the hands of her boyfriend (hilariously played by Workaholics' Anders Holm) she gets a magnificent, kick-ass revenge. The two other women in Andre's life -- reality star fiancée Erica (Gabrielle Union) and former girlfriend Vanessa (Sherri Shepherd) both get very brief moments of weakness which have far more emotional honesty than anything Chelsea gets. Chelsea is in the movie for one reason and one reason only: to rescue Andre. She is too wise and too caring and too perfect. And that is the kiss of death.
But of course, it's just a movie, and in a movie, death is relative. Top Five is all about rebirth. It manages to transcend its failings and still be relevant and smart. And very funny.