One thing that's stuck with me since reading an interview Chris Rock did years ago where he discussed how he perfected his sharply written and delivered material in the classic 1996 HBO comedy special Bring the Pain--material that revitalized his stand-up career and consists of several of his most frequently quoted routines about race and black celebrity scandals--was when he said he mentally trained like a boxer for Bring the Pain. This winter's Top Five, the third film Rock directed, wrote and starred in, also feels like the result of someone who ran seven miles from home to the boxing gym and back and punched heavy bags for eight hours a day, in order to come up with the artistic achievement he's made here.
But it's not a perfect film. It's full of things some segments of the audience are either irritated or offended by, and for me, a person who dabbled in journalism for a few years, that thing was a certain New York Times-related plot twist, while if you're gay and tired of seeing gays getting mocked or shamed in movies for their sexual preferences, that thing would be a certain tampon/hot sauce sight gag involving a certain closeted antagonist portrayed by Workaholics star Anders Holm. Despite those flaws, Top Five signals a promising new direction for Rock as both a filmmaker and a leading man. As Kelefa Sanneh noted in his New Yorker profile of the Top Five star/director, Rock has tended to be inert--particularly as a leading man--during his previous attempts at a star vehicle, "as if, in the effort to shed his characteristic comic fervor, he has accidentally shed too much" (one of those star vehicles was 2001's Heaven Can Wait remake Down to Earth, where a pre-Harold & Kumar John Cho's bit part as a puffy-shirted singer who kills it on stage at the Apollo is the most memorable and funny thing about the movie).
That past inertness as a lead never shows up in Top Five. It's as if Rock paid attention to the mixed reactions to his two previous directorial efforts--the pre-Obama black president comedy Head of State, which only sprang to life when Rock either shared the screen with the late Bernie Mac or simply conceded it to him, and the uneven I Think I Love My Wife, his remake of Eric Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon--and he decided to go all in, go for broke or however you want to describe it using "go." Sanneh's piece mentions that Top Five producer Scott Rudin prodded Rock to recapture the rebellious spirit of his earlier stand-up routines and asked the 49-year-old comic to come up with "the 49-year-old version of dropping the mike." In this most personal of his three directorial efforts, a story of a comedian experiencing a midlife career crisis, Rock drops the mike by doubling down on the humor, the raunch (hint: the tampon/hot sauce gag, as well as a hotel room flashback), the depth and the insight on being both a comedian in a high-pressure showbiz environment and a black celebrity. It's the kind of insight that's been only previously seen whenever Rock does interviews or his stand-up act, but never before within his own films, except for a quietly dramatic scene in Head of State where Rock's presidential candidate character tells Dylan Baker if he quits running for president, "there won't be another black candidate for 50 years."
Top Five is a film about both the art of comedy and being a black celebrity that's like no other. Rock, a Woody Allen fan, has to be the only black director who worships and emulates Allen (during the I Think I Love My Wife audio commentary, Rock said, "I will hire anybody that has worked with Woody Allen," which was why he got Annie Hall editor Wendy Greene Bricmont to cut I Think I Love My Wife). He's cited Allen as an influence on Top Five's tone and pacing (hmm, I wonder where Rock got the last name of his Top Five character Andre Allen from). Top Five also carries echoes of Louie, the hit show from Louis C.K., a close friend of Rock's who declined an offer to do a cameo in Top Five, as well as both Funny People, Judd Apatow's half-great 2009 midlife crisis film about a cancer-stricken stand-up/movie star portrayed by Adam Sandler, a close friend of Rock's who cameos in Top Five, and Comedian, director Christian Charles' jazzy 2002 documentary about the stand-up comeback efforts of Jerry Seinfeld, another close friend of Rock's who cameos in Top Five. Where Top Five differs from Louie, Allen's work and the Seinfeld documentary is its point of view--life for a well-off (but privately unhappy) black comedian is significantly different from that of a privileged white New Yorker--and where the Rock film differs from Funny People is that it's a tighter, snappier and more focused film about a discontented comedian: the story ends right when it's supposed to end, not 45 minutes afterward.
Like Sandler's character in Funny People, Rock's alter ego Andre, a recovering alcoholic, has become a prisoner of his own success. He's feeling hamstrung by a series of popular buddy cop comedies where he has to climb into a bear suit and play a talking bear named Hammy, and his attempt to be taken seriously as an actor, a vanity project about the Haitian slave revolution entitled Uprize! (goofily spelled with a Z instead of an S), is tanking big-time. Adding to his career woes is an impending marriage to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), a Bravo reality TV star he feels indebted to marry for reasons that would benefit both of them, even though he doesn't love her.
To promote the poorly received Uprize!, Andre reluctantly agrees to be the subject of a celebrity profile by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). He dislikes journalists as much as he dislikes Hammy--he's currently fuming over a scathing review one of them gave to Uprize!--so their interviewing sessions are initially fraught with tension. Chelsea herself was once a fan of Andre's comedy from his stand-up days (Andre is an example of what Rock said to Fresh Air host Terry Gross is the strangest thing about performers he admires like Steve Martin and Michael Keaton: they were great stand-ups who abandoned stand-up), and she thinks Andre's lost his edge as a comedian. Interacting with the opinionated and whip-smart Chelsea awakens Andre out of his complacency and temporarily pulls him out of his misery. But right when Top Five looks like it's about to veer into tiresome "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" territory, the film fleshes out Dawson's initially MPDG-ish character and reveals some layers to her: like Andre, Chelsea's an equally complicated alcoholic hiding some skeletons in her closet.
Without giving too much away, one of these skeletons is the Times-related twist, the least convincing moment in Top Five. As much as I hate several of the writers from the Times these days, that paper would never, in real life, assign the kinds of tasks the film's fictionalized version of the Times assigns to Chelsea--maybe an alt-weekly would, but definitely not the Gray Lady. But then again, the universe where Top Five takes place has transformed a bear who's an action hero into a box-office sensation, which must mean that in Andre and Hammy's universe, Howard the Duck was the biggest box-office hit of 1986. So if I'm able to accept Hammy's popularity even though it's kind of ridiculous (Hammy appears to be based on the popularity of Rock's zebra character from the CG-animated Madagascar movies, which have made way more dough than any of his live-action movies), then I guess I can accept this alternate version of the Times.
Speaking of alternate versions of things, Andre could be interpreted as an alcoholic version of Rock who's much more image-conscious than the real-life Rock, as well as far less enlightened: when he asks Chelsea if a past Asian boyfriend of hers was a karate Asian or a nerdy Asian, that's like a non-black person asking "Was he black as in basketball-dunking black or purse-snatching black?" But Andre is also drawn from the tabloid headline-making likes of Katt Williams, Martin Lawrence and Tracy Morgan (who appears in the film in a small role that was filmed before his car accident and received applause at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival screening of Top Five, from Morgan fans who have longed to see the former 30 Rock star on screen again after severe injuries from the accident have kept him away from the spotlight), so Rock's character isn't merely Rock with a drinking problem. The public meltdown Andre experiences inside a liquor store especially brings to mind Williams' meltdowns.
Rock followed the adage "Write what you know." His eye-opening glimpses during Top Five into the world of stand-up (a world he knows so well that the Apollo scenes during Down to Earth were far more interesting and alive than the Heaven Can Wait rom-com stuff) and his thought-provoking observations on how that world can be a toxic one for the likes of Williams, Lawrence and Morgan--or, hell, any performer with an addictive personality and an inability to say no to anything, whether it's booze or talking-bear movies--are partly why Top Five is a keeper. A flashback to Andre's past with a parasitic Houston club promoter (Cedric the Entertainer) who plied Andre with everything he could dream of--until a wild night of group sex where Andre was sidelined to being an appalled spectator made him regret those perks--is a hilarious comedic-nightmare centerpiece of Top Five, amusingly soundtracked by Freddie Jackson's 1985 quiet-storm hit "You Are My Lady" ("Not knowing the value of comedy, I would have went with the most nastiest song ever, something like Jodeci's 'Freek'N You.' But [Rock] taught me the value of the irony, of the sweetness," said Top Five co-composer Questlove about Rock's choice of Freddie Jackson to Times interviewer Jon Caramanica).
Top Five's not-as-nightmarish other centerpiece is a sequence where Andre brings Chelsea along with him on a visit to his relatives and childhood friends in the projects. The film pauses to listen in on Andre and his relatives and friends--whom he hasn't lost touch with despite his success and are portrayed by Morgan, Sherri Shepherd, Hassan "Wee Bey" Johnson and current SNL cast members Michael Che, Jay Pharoah and Leslie Jones, a.k.a. one of Paul Feig's new Ghostbusters--riffing in a cramped apartment on lists of their five favorite rappers (the same kind of listmaking that cements the bond between Andre and Chelsea, hence the title Top Five) and what-if scenarios like 2Pac's career trajectory if he hadn't died. Their spontaneous-sounding exchanges are so funny I could watch them riff for two hours. A similar moment of loose riffing--where I feel like I'm watching a real-life conversation unfold instead of a movie conversation--takes place at a strip club where the aforementioned Sandler and Seinfeld make their cameos as themselves and are joined by an unexpected Whoopi Goldberg in giving advice to Andre.
This is the funniest Seinfeld--who once attempted to launch a movie career with the animated DreamWorks vehicle Bee Movie, didn't seem to care for continuing on with that movie career and immediately went back to stand-up--has ever been on the big screen. Top Five also contains the funniest role Cedric's had since Barbershop (his character appears to be a composite of real-life lowlife promoters either Rock himself or his road comic friends encountered on the road), and the film has Rock getting some career-best dramatic work out of both Dawson, a fully realized love interest despite the implausibility of Chelsea's tasks at the Times, and Union as the ambitious reality TV celebrity. A few feminists have criticized Top Five for being misogynist, but Head of State is the Rock film that's more deserving of their ire. Union's dramatic scene where her character Erica realizes the emptiness of her stardom ("I don't have a talent") shows how Rock has matured a bit in terms of writing female characters. The one-dimensional shrew/antagonist Rock had Robin Givens portray in Head of State was never imbued with the kind of depth Erica is imbued with in Union's best scene. This generosity in Rock's work as a director is also why Top Five is a keeper. The generosity was hinted at in the way he let Mac steal scenes in Head of State, and it's demonstrated in the ways he let Union, Dawson, Cedric, Seinfeld, Jones and even "comedian's comedian" Brian Regan, in a bit part as a fussy Sirius XM promo director, and J.B. Smoove, in a mostly low-key, Don Rickles in Casino-esque role as Andre's bodyguard and childhood friend, all run away with standout moments.
I'm probably the millionth person to praise the performances in Top Five. Now I'll be the first to praise the music choices. In addition to recruiting Questlove to score Top Five, Rock got talented Community and Fruitvale Station composer Ludwig Göransson--whose production work on Childish Gambino tracks is actually more enjoyable than Gambino's own lyrics--to take part in the score and perform faithful covers of classic breakbeats, like a cover of the instrumental version of Digable Planets' "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" for Andre and Chelsea's "top five comedians" scene on the subway, a clever way to work around Top Five's low budget and keep music clearance costs down.
For the music supervision, Rock turned to both regular Wes Anderson collaborator Randall Poster and George Drakoulias, the record producer and Def Jam talent scout the Beastie Boys name-checked in "B-Boy Bouillabaisse" ("Went from the station to Orange Julius/I bought a hot dog from who?: George Drakoulias"). Under their supervision, Top Five wound up with the aforementioned use of "You Are My Lady" to amusingly enhance the craziness of the Houston hotel sex scene (you'll never be able to hear that '80s slow jam again without thinking of Top Five), as well as the fitting choice of Jay Z and Kanye West's "Niggas in Paris" for the film's first few minutes.
The Watch the Throne joint is kind of an overplayed anthem. But it's perfect for Top Five because of both how often Jay Z is mentioned in the characters' discussions of hip-hop artists they admire and the film's story of Andre's issues with his own fame, which--thanks to his experiences with Chelsea--lead to him realizing he wants to go back to making art that would best reflect his creative voice, something he's lost due to choosing to do mindless and hacky talking-animal movies and ill-advised Oscar-bait biopics. "Niggas in Paris" is partially about Kanye's enjoyment of Paris as a refuge where his artistic ambitions, particularly his fashion-related ones, are taken seriously and allowed room to grow, and it references the city's past as a similar refuge for African American expatriates. Andre's Paris has yet to be discovered when the story kicks off with "Niggas in Paris"--and there are major bumps along the way in getting there--but Andre ultimately finds Paris in the end, in the form of the same small club where Louis C.K. finds refuge from the joylessness of daily life in many episodes of Louie and where Rock, in real life, tests out future comedic material: the legendary Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. The verbal boxer that is Rock affectionately referred to the Cellar as his gym during the New Yorker's interview with him. Hopefully, the training and sparring in that gym will lead to another uproarious and insightful accomplishment from Rock like Top Five.