Sometimes if the parts aren't coming to you, you simply need to create them. It's an old story in the entertainment business and the genesis of Chris Rock's fantastic new flick “Top Five.”
Rock has won four Emmy Awards and is known as being one of the top stand-up comics of his generation, but if he was going to make something “meaningful” on the big screen he was going to have to do some soul searching. That meant trying to make a movie better than the previous films he either wrote or directed, including “Down to Earth” (screenplay), “Head of State” (wrote and directed) and the underrated “I Think I Love My Wife,” arguably his most personal work before “Top Five.”
Speaking to HitFix this past weekend, Rock says his thought process was: “If I want to work in the type of movies that I want to work in, whatever movie I do has to be better than the ones that I”ve done. I”ve got to, you know, kick start this career of mine. And the career is fine, but on the movie side, you know, I”ve been allowed to make movies but I”ve never seen anything lead to something else.”
In the past Rock always worked with other writers. He went solo this time. The one exception to the decision was that he hooked up with legendary movie producer Scott Rudin (who also produced Rock's Broadway debut “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” in 2011).
“I just did things I normally hadn't done before,” Rock says. “And so far it looks like it”s turned out pretty decent.”
That's putting it mildly. “Top Five” has earned Rock the best movie reviews of his career and his deft screenplay even has a shot in the original screenplay Oscar race. The film sent a jolt through the Toronto Film Festival after its September premiere and became the most expensive acquisition in the festival's history, earning Rock's backers, Rudin and Barry Diller's IACF, $12.5 million.
It's slightly unfair to just call “Top Five” a comedy. It's also a drama, a slice of modern day race relations, an ode to classic New York filmmaking and, even more importantly, an homage to the city's standup comedy heritage. The story centers on Andre Allen (Rock), a movie superstar who has decided to stop making hit comedies like his popular “Hammy the Bear” franchise and instead focus on serious work like his new film “Uprize!” which centers on an 18th Century Haitian revolution. That movie, however, has bomb written all over it which prompts his agent (Kevin Hart) to set up an indepth interview story with a New York Times reporter, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), in order to minimize the damage to his career. At the same time, Allen has found himself engaged to a TV reality star (a superb Gabrielle Union) who is having their entire wedding turned into a Bravo special. This is all transpiring at a pivotal point in Alan's life where the choices he makes will likely define him for years to come.
When you see the film on screen, Allen seems like a deeply personal character to Rock, but he makes it clear he's not specifically playing himself. Well, let's amend that statement just a bit.
“I mean it”s a little me but it”s…it”s almost like black comedians get famous. We do HBO specials. We wear leather. It”s like we all kind of do the same Eddie Murphy-ish blueprint to being famous. And we all do our versions of Eddie. So, you know, Chris Tucker did his version of Eddie. And Kevin [Hart] was doing his version of Eddie and I did my version. You know so [Andrew is] a combination of a bunch of everybody. Everybody will be happy. Everybody will be pissed.”
While “Top Five” remarkably stayed under the radar for quite a long time (it was originally titled “Finally Famous”), Rock actually began working on the project three years ago. Writing and working with Rudin on the screenplay was a “whole process” (which is why the quality of his films are so consistent). Shooting took place last summer and then Rock spent about a year cutting.
“I kind of viewed the editing as another writing experience, you know, because the movie jumps around a lot and the script did not jump around,” Rock says. “The script was a little more linear. But, you know, again I had to open myself up to making [changes], making it better.”
While improv moments from some of the film's numerous guest stars affected the structure a bit, there were more significant things he learned in the editing room.
“The movie starts in the middle now,” he says. “It starts with me and Rosario on the street. It used to start with Charlie Rose. So, you know, things jump around that didn”t jump around when I was writing the script. But I just discovered that it just worked better and it just had more life when things jumped around. It made the movie more interesting.”
You can't have this much comedic talent in a movie without some improv moments breaking through, but Rock is quick to point out it all was in the context of a specific scene with specific story elements that needed to be made.
“I mean anything about the wedding was clearly on the page,” he says. “Anything about the gift bags and all that stuff and owing money. These were all like natural things for the characters to talk about. Leslie [Jones] probably improved the [line] 'You”ve got to make money. You”ve got to have an income to pay taxes' thing. And, you know, Tracy [Morgan] probably improved 'I”m gonna turn over like an apple pie.' Stuff like that was improv. But, you know, there”s a lot of information in that scene that you need. So that stuff had to be scripted.”
The key to “Top Five's” creative success, however, isn't the laugh-out-loud moments with a who's who of comedy guest stars stopping by. Instead, it's the relationship that plays out on screen between Dawson and Rock's characters. It's simply the best performance of Dawson's career (if there is any justice she'll earn a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical) and she transforms Brown into a reporter you believe could convince Allen to trust her, even though she obviously has an agenda of her own.
“I didn”t want to make her a villain, I”ll tell you that much,” Rock says of Brown. “It would have been easy to try to do some fake version of 'Network' where I commentated on the media through my relationship with this reporter. I didn”t want to do that. But I”ll tell you that I just – the media”s people too, you know. The media”s people too and they can be really smart sometimes and they can be really dumb sometimes. But none of it”s malicious.”
Why Rock cast Dawson is more intriguing. The role seems perfect for someone like Kerry Washington (who starred in “I Think I Love My Wife”), but he had his reasons for choosing the versatile New York native.
“I”ve known her a while,” he says. “We never worked together before. We always seemed to like, you know, flirt a little bit, as much as a married guy could flirt, do you know what I mean? We always had fun. You bump into people at events and awards shows and whatnot. So she always seemed like a fun gal. I always loved her as an actress. And I don”t know. She just seemed right for the part.”
Rock then makes a very important distinction about casting that filmmakers, producers and casting directors often forget.
“You know, you had to believe [she was this character],” Rock says. “[When you see someone playing] a writer or doctor or whatever, you”ve got to believe they”re that intelligent. You know it”s so easy [to make a mistake and] cast the dumb lawyer. It”s like, 'She”s not a lawyer.' He”s not a lawyer. Stop it.'”
One thing that's hard to discuss with Rock before “Top Five” hits theaters are some of the movie's shocking comedic set pieces that are just too funny to spoil. One item that has been revealed, however, is Allen's aforementioned “Hammy” franchise, which finds him playing a cop or detective (it probably doesn't even matter) in a bear suit. When he's taking out the bad guys he yells “It's Happy time!” and the concept is so bizarre you almost believe it could actually get made. At first Rock says it's just his own take on “black guy does a cop movie” and the bear suit was just his “twist on it.” Except…
“I remember Whoopi had a movie where her partner was a dinosaur,” he says. “There”s a movie. I never saw it. All I know is Whoopi Goldberg”s on the cover of a poster and she”s a cop and her partner”s a dinosaur.”
There is a movie where Goldberg played a cop whose partner is a talking dinosaur, “Theodore Rex.” The 1995 flick was so terrible it went straight to video and is so bad it has a 2.4 out of 10 score on IMDB. It's actually really hard to have that terrible a rating on IMDB.
Rock won't ever have that problem with “Top Five.”
“Top Five” opens nationwide on Dec. 12.