Top Five (2014)
The Plot: On the day before his live-on-air marriage to reality star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), comedian and recovering alcoholic Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is in Manhattan promoting the release of his new critically maligned drama. At the urging of his agent (Kevin Hart), Andre agrees to do an in-depth interview with New York Times writer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), in spite of the toxic reviews he’s been given by another Times writer. As the two spend the day together, puff piece questions become harder-edged and their relationship grows into something more than interviewer and subject as the pair share awkward encounters with Andre’s friends and family, Chelsea’s boyfriend Brad (Anders Holm), and confront past failures. Through prying questions, uncomfortable anecdotes, and debates of the top five rappers of all time, the duo work through harsh truths and some unsettling lies.
If you’ve seen any of the TV spots for Top Five, chances are you’re expecting a very different movie than what you’ll actually get. With promotional campaigns highlighting the scenes in which Andre jokes around with fellow comedians such as Kevin Hart and Tracy Morgan, you’d be forgiven for expecting this film to revolve around these comedians and celebrities hanging out and riffing on each other for 102 minutes. What these ads fail to capture is the background of discomfort and tension that surrounds these scenes of Andre interacting with his friends, many of whom share a sense of resentment at their friend leaving them behind for a life of celebrity and success. While there are some incredibly funny moments in Top Five, the Chris Rock written and directed film deals in some weightier, less general audience salable emotion than the ad campaign intimates.
The majority of the film focuses on conversations between Andre and Chelsea, the camera playing causal observer and keeping apace as the pair walks through the streets of New York, discussing everything from comedy forbearers to Andre’s theory of the connection between the release of Planet of the Apes and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. While lengthy conversations debating pop culture are certainly nothing new to cinema, what Rock understands that so many hack filmmakers aping Pulp Fiction doesn’t, is that this dialogue has to go somewhere and inform the audience about the characters and how they connect with each other. Rock and Dawson have great chemistry as a celebrity comic and journalist, both recovering alcoholics who are both support and antagonize one another over the course of a day. What conversations about the merits of Charlie Chaplin and Richard Pryor and their respective top five rappers provide are insights into the characters, as well as the personas they occasionally try to put on; during Andre’s frequently awkward party with his family, the eponymous top five lists breaks down pretense and provides the increasingly estranged characters a moment of honest connection. Andre is a blisteringly honest comedian making an insincere stab at both marriage and at respectability with an Oscar-bait drama about a Haitian revolutionary, while Chelsea asks penetrating questions to find honest answers all while hiding portions of her life. The film is at its strongest when its focusing on the push and pull between these characters and the two begin to shape and influence each other over the course of a day.
It’s when the film begins to stray from these scenes that some of the film’s significant problems emerge. The film occasionally cuts away to flashbacks illustrating Andre and Chelsea’s more uncomfortable moments to some mixed results. A flashback to Andre’s lowest ebb as an alcoholic fits with well enough with the tone established by the film, balancing funniness and discomfort well, but a flashback detailing how Chelsea’s boyfriend like’s having a finger stuck in his butt during sex feel like scenes from another movie; like the Farrelly brothers secretly filmed and added a scene while Rock was working on promotion or something. The flashbacks also frustrate what is already an oddly paced film. For most of its run Top Five is relatively unconcerned with reaching its destination, instead emphasizing the humor and sadness of character interactions; but at times the film realizes it needs to come to a dramatic headway and plot takes over in a way that feels invasive and unnatural. Gabrielle Union’s Erica Long acts as a plot device more than a character throughout too much of the film, dropping in with a call every now and again to make demands on a put-upon Andre in preparation for the tv super-wedding. Erica earns audience sympathy in a excellent scene towards the end, but spends much of the run time as a symbol of shallow, vacuous Hollywood smothering a creative genius instead of a person.
Luckily, this is a film that never forgets to be funny. Towards the end of the film, Andre gets on stage to deliver some stand up and gives some incredibly funny material in that setting and translating an intimate environment like a New York comedy club incredibly well onto the screen. Also great is the impressive line-up of cameos throughout the film. Outside of the previously mentioned Hart and Morgan, the film also features some great, funny cameos from Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Whoopi Goldberg at Andre’s network-mandated strip club bachelor party. The winner of best celebrity cameo, however, goes to DMX in one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen this year.
Chris Rock set out to do some ambitious things with Top Five, and ended up with a good, if inconsistent film. The film shines when it favors character over comedy set-piece and dialogue over sticking a tampon covered in hot sauce into the guy from Workaholics’ butt. In a season where indie drama and mega-budget blockbuster rule theaters, taking an afternoon with Andre and Chelsea on the streets of New York is refreshing.