Movie Review: Top Five
By Matthew Huntley
December 17, 2014

They're laughing at Tracy Morgan's pain.

Chris Rock is not an actor. Or maybe he is but just not a very good one. His talent and humor stem from his role as a stand-up comedian and critical observer of society and human behavior. In this capacity, he has a pulsating energy and distinct insight, but pretending to be someone else is not his strong suit. This is evidenced in Top Five, which Rock wrote, directed and stars in, where the best moments are when he’s simply himself and not attempting to play a character.

Consider the sequence when he and some old friends (played by former and current “Saturday Night Live” cast members Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones and Michael Che) gather in a small apartment to eat, drink, reminisce and cheerfully chide one another. Everything about it feels natural and unscripted, and it was a joy just to hear this uproarious group of individuals talk. We wish the whole movie could have been like this, but unfortunately a less-than-inspiring plot kicks in, and when it does, it brings the movie’s spirit (and our interest) down.

Rock plays Andre Allen, a stand-up comedian-turned Hollywood actor who hit it big with a franchise called Hammy the Bear, in which he played a foul-mouth cop who dresses up in a bear suit. The last installment in the “Hammy” series grossed over $600 million worldwide, but despite its success, Andre tells Charlie Rose he wants to give up comedy and pursue more dramatic roles.

This desire coincides with Andre’s newfound sobriety - he’s a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser - and his first attempt at playing serious (and being taken seriously) is with a movie called Uprize, about the Haitian slave rebellion. He arrives in New York City to promote the film and attend his bachelor party. Allen is set to marry reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) in a highly publicized wedding, although he’s not exactly crazy about the idea, and we can see why. Long initially comes across an archetypal, superficial celebrity, who tells Andre, “If something isn’t recorded, it didn’t actually happen,” but by end of the movie, we see she’s actually a realist.

Andre’s agent (Kevin Hart) schedules him a one-on-one interview with a spunky New York Times reporter named Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who makes it her mission to deconstruct Andre and ask him the tough questions, like why he’s really choosing to abandon comedy. She promises him that if he’s honest and open about who he is, she’ll be more than fair in her article and help people see his talent and worth go beyond a silly, one-note Hollywood franchise. So the two spend the day together, talking about things like current events, family, relationships and the effort it takes to say sober (Chelsea herself is a recovering alcoholic).

It would have been sufficient if Top Five simply observed Rock and Dawson talking to each other the whole time, speaking intelligent and insightful dialogue about interesting subjects such as Barack Obama; the subliminal racism in Planet of the Apes; Martin Luther King, Jr.; the differences between men and women when it comes to their expectations for weddings and marriage; and their top five favorite rappers. The two have such good chemistry and bounce ideas off each other so effortlessly that I wouldn’t be surprised if most of their scenes were improvised. We also respond to the movie’s social commentary about Hollywood celebrities and the public’s obsession with them and their trivialities, or the rigorous promotion process that famous people must go through in order to sell themselves and project the best image possible, right down to their tone and cadence for a radio sound byte.

Rock clearly had enough substance at his disposal to make Top Five a quick, perceptive comedy that could be both funny and piercing, which makes its mechanized plot all the more unnecessary. Before long, the contrived wheels start to turn as Andre and Chelsea discover they like each other romantically, which means the screenplay must find a way to paint his fiancée and her boyfriend (Anders Holm) in a bad light, not to mention cast a shadow of doubt on us that the two leads will end up together, or that they might succumb to the pressures of alcohol and drugs again.

Such conventional devices proved to be rather boring and felt forced, as do the overwrought sequences that were meant to build toward greater moments of hilarity but instead fall flat. One of these is when Andre recalls his first rock-bottom experience in Houston of 2003, when he met an escort named Jazzy Dee (Cedric the Entertainer), who walks in on Andre having sex with two women, which subsequently leads to an unforgettably disturbing night. I’m sure this flashback seemed funny on paper, but the way it plays out is too unbelievable and ends up making us feel awkward because we’re not exactly sure how to take it. We also don’t get much out of the cameos by Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld and Whoopi Goldberg, each of whom, like Rock, would be better suited to speak their own words instead of dialogue from a screenplay. Their opinions about infidelity and the female reproductive organ are just not that amusing because we’re never convinced they’d actually say something like this.

Top Five has its share of enjoyable, funny moments, to be sure (I was particularly fond of Chelsea’s remark about the world’s “two billion Chinese”), but on the whole, the movie is too inconsistent to recommend. It would have served us better as a purely observant film (think Before Sunrise), in which the characters simply talk about topical matters. Rock may have felt a more traditional plot was necessary to give the movie structure, or perhaps to make it more sell-able, but just as he’s proved on stage, or with small projects like the under-seen documentary Good Hair, about African-American hairstyles, it’s when he simply looks into and responds to things in our culture that he’s the most effective entertainer. He holds our attention just by being himself, which is a strong asset for a comedian, or anyone really.