TOP FIVE Review | TIFF 2014

     September 9, 2014

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On stage, Chris Rock is consistently one of the funniest men on the planet.  In the movies…well, it’s been a rocky road.  With a few exceptions (typically in supporting roles), filmmakers have just never been able to figure out how to take advantage of his comedic voice when playing a fictional character.  Even the two times in the past that Rock has directed his movies, something felt off.  At least that was true until now.  Rock writes, directs, and stars in Top Five as a loosely fictionalized version of himself.  Just like a Woody Allen movie, it comes off as personal without being autobiographical. More importantly, it’s incredibly funny, just like Rock has always been with a mic in his hand. About time.  Hit that jump.

Rock stars as a former stand up comic turned film star who abandoned his live comedy roots to pay a big dumb dog in a big dumb comedy franchise.  He was also a raging drunk through it all and now that he’s sober, he wants to be taken seriously.  So the film takes place on the opening day of his new film, in which he leads a slave revolt with no laughs to speak of. In a lifestyle choice that’s far less likely to get him taken seriously, he’s also about to marry a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) in a ceremony to be filmed for her TV series the following.  On top of all that, he’s agreed to an extended interview with a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) who will be grilling him all day long. So, a stressful day indeed, one practically guaranteed to provide plenty of content for a movie, right? Absolutely.  With the reporter being Rosario Dawson, obviously there’s plenty of chemistry to go around and sparks and all that.  The day long chat sees them visit his old neighborhood (cue Tracy Morgan cameo), share embarrassing stories from the past (cue Cedric The Entertainer cameo), and “enjoy” an overly manipulated reality TV bachelor party (cue Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Whoopi Goldberg cameos).

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Rock’s created a movie that plays purely to his strengths.  The conversations with Dawson allow him to trot out some brilliant observational stand up material as dialogue, while all of the narrative digressions provide opportunities for cameos from all of his funniest friends to help carry the comedy load (JB Smoove also plays his assistant/driver, which guarantees a laugh pretty much any time that he opens his mouth).  Working independently, Rock is also allowed to be gleefully R-rated, which is where his comedy really takes off (he evens gets his typically squeaky clean buddy Seinfeld to lay on some exquisitely funny filth, which is kind of surreal to see).  Rock’s voice is all over the film as both an actor and screenwriter, yet never in a way that makes all of the characters sound the same.  He clearly gave all the performers a chance to play and make the words their own, which pays off in a big way.  As an actor, Rock has never felt more natural. As a director, he seems to be in complete control.

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The movie is not hyper-stylized Scorsese epic, but Rock has enough sense of where to put his cameras and why to deliver something that feels cinematic even though it’s primarily dialogue driven.  As a director, he’s come a long way since the fairly clunky Head of State and the film is genuinely well shot and constructed in it’s own small way. Where Rock fails a bit is in the drama within the laughs. The story of his character’s breakdown and redemption as well as the slow-burn bubbling attraction between him and Dawson work perfectly fine over all, yet can be stilted in some scenes.

There are times when Rock’s writing can be a little too on the nose in terms of plot and subtext, especially since he’s aiming for something so small and simple. Thankfully, these problems are very minor and easily ignore. What matters most is that the love story is credible, the redemption arc is justified, and most importantly the film is just really, really fucking funny. It took a long time for Rock to get a movie worthy of his talents and unsurprisingly he was the one who made it for himself. But it finally happened and hopefully, this is just the start of a string of Chris Rock joints because the man appears to be onto something.

Grade: B

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