Top Five showcases the work of an exceptionally brilliant stand up comedian who at last comes into his own on the silver screen. It took some time, but this is one solid payoff. Chris Rock’s greatest work in his quarter century of fame has always been created by him in the form what he’s accomplished on stage holding a mic. Not on SNL, where he was never used properly. Not in movies, which included him doing watered down bits of his act in the fourth Lethal Weapon and trying to fit into an action comedy with Anthony Hopkins. Even pictures he wrote himself, like the Heaven Can Wait remake Down to Earth and political satire Head of State, contained only glimpses of the edge and wit the star brought to a stage.
So it fits that Rock’s character here, Andre Allen, is a once revered comedian whose once hot film career has stalled. Allen has decided to take on more serious roles and nobody’s buying. They want to see him return for a fourth edition of his Hammy the Bear franchise, which casts him as a wisecracking cop in a bear suit. With no future Hammys on the horizon and a dud of a drama about Haitian slavery called Uprize about to debut, Andre’s life is garnering more attention for his impending nuptials to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union). Their engagement and marriage is, of course, being shot as its own BRAVO series.
The picture takes place in the time span of one day, as Andre is being tailed by New York Times reporter Chelsea (Rosario Dawson) for a feature piece. She’s not your average interviewer and she manages to ask some probing questions to the actor that are more important than “Were you the class clown?” (though she asks that too). Soon the two are embroiled in occasionally deep and often very humorous discussions on their mutual addictions to alcohol, relationships, family, and fame. And we see Chelsea perhaps spark something in a performer who’s seemingly lost his creative way.
For Top Five to arrive not long after Rock made Grown Ups 2 causes me to wonder if he needed to make this. This is the freshest, most insightful and energetic and likely personal tale he’s ever commited to other than his stand up routine. There are genuine belly laughs yet its shift to a more serious tone in the second half works because the central characters are well developed. His chemistry with Dawson works and her performance is terrific, too.
While most of the action centers on the two leads, Top Five is jam packed with familiar faces from Kevin Hart to Tracy Morgan to Cedric the Entertainer. There are some cameos from unexpected celebs that are too good to spoil. Perhaps the best supporting character is JB Smoove as Andre’s barely needed bodyguard, who eventually really does come in handy.
The only minor quibble here is Hammy the Bear. It might’ve been a smarter move for writer/director Rock to make Andre have a similar film career to his real one. The Hammy thing is, well, kind of hammy and unnecessarily over the top silly in a screenplay that mostly avoids it.
Top Five is about an artist trying to rediscover what makes him special. We’ve always known Chris Rock is a force onstage. This is the first time he’s come darn close to greatness in this format.
***1/2 (out of four)