I honestly didn't know Chris Rock had this in him.
As a stand-up, Rock is one of the greats. The way he evolved was incredibly impressive, and by the time he released “Bring The Pain,” he was in complete command of his craft. He knew how to ride an audience to victory.
On film, though, I don't think Rock has ever even approached mastering things the way he has with live performance. He's done stuff I've enjoyed, and one of the things that made his early work noteworthy was just how extreme he was. His scene in “I'm Gonna Git You Sucka” was one of that film's biggest laughs for me. For literally years afterwards, the thought of “One rib!” would kill me all over again. He got to play with Eddie Murphy in “Boomerang,” and I remember being excited to see the two of them in a scene, knowing how huge an influence Eddie was for him. He's good in “CB4.” But he's in a lot of films where there was absolutely no sign that anyone knew what to do with him and his particular personality.
That's the hardest part of crafting a comedy vehicle for someone whose comedy is so closely tied to who they are as a person. Chris Rock is Chris Rock. He's not a chameleon who vanishes into his different roles. He's never going to age into this subtle character actor, because that's not who he is. As a writer/director, I think his first two films were severely mixed bags. “Head Of State” and “I Think I Love My Wife” both have things that made them interesting, but neither one of them worked in terms of being a complete film.
The jump, then, to “Top Five,” is intense, and I have to completely re-assess Rock as a filmmaker now. I think it's interesting that one of Chris Rock's most productive friendly comedy relationships was with Louis CK. Louie's gone through an evolution onstage and as a filmmaker, and his work these days is genuinely impressive. Rock tells the story here of Andre Allen, a successful comedian and movie star who decided that he doesn't want to make the sort of broad comedies that made him famous.
Yes, that's right. Chris Rock made “Stardust Memories.”
Only he remade it in the image of Richard Linklater's “Before” films, and it turns out to be a pretty fetching version of the walk-and-talk romance. Andre is set to marry Erica, a huge television reality show star (Gabrielle Union in a subtle and lacerating turn) just after the hopefully-successful opening weekend of his first big serious movie, “Uprize,” about the Haitian slave revolution. The film is a dud and everyone around Andre knows it even if he doesn't know it himself, and they're bracing for the bomb to go off. They have reason to worry, too, because Andre is in recovery, and he's under a lot of pressure from every direction. He's got to make Erica happy. He's got to sell the movie. He's got to go through the motions of promoting it, even as it's falling apart around him.
So of course, that's the moment you agree to do a profile piece for The New York Times, and you give them full access for an afternoon. The reporter who shows up is Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), and she almost immediately starts chipping away at Andre's natural defenses. He's determined to make her work for it. If she wants some kind of big exclusive amazing headline, she's going to have to hang with Andre. And little by little, Chelsea starts to see who he is, where he came from, and he starts to see her life as well. This is what Rock gets right, the things that connect between Andre and Chelsea, the steps forward, the attraction. I think they play it real, and Dawson is at her most vulnerable and appealing here. She's such a huge personality, such a strong physical presence, and the thing that some directors have made smart use of is the power of Dawson's full smile directed at a man. Rock has real chemistry with her, and they've got some scenes together that are playfully explicit in a way you rarely see in a mainstream comedy.
The supporting cast here all shows up ready to play, and it's one home run ten minute bit after another. Rock does a great job of setting the stage for each of his supporting players to come in and get something great to do. Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, and Sherri Shepherd are pretty much awesome in their scenes as Rock's friends and family from the old days, with J.B. Smoove playing Andre's bodyguard and best friend, his gigantic Jiminy Cricket who has a problem with catcalling and a fondness for thick ladies.
There are cameos as well, and Jerry Seinfeld would never in any rational universe be nominated for any award for what he does in this film, but he kills. He comes in, he plays as hard as he can, and he kills. Cedric The Enterainer comes in and kills. Kevin Hart kills. All of this is as consistently funny as it sounds. There is also a cameo that I would never dream of spoiling that is absolutely inspired, leading to one of the most surreal moments of epiphany in any film in 2014.
“Top Five” is, above everything else, really entertaining. It is a successful sophisticated spin on Hollywood formula, and it feels like Chris Rock finally finding a filmmaking voice that is just as limber and funny and sharply satirical and angry and even romantic as Rock's stand-up. One of the things I didn't know going in was that Manuel Alberto Claro shot the film. I think he's kind of a beast, a really strong cinematographer who has left his mark strongly on his collaborations with Lars Von Trier, and he does a great job of keeping Andre and Chelsea in motion through New York over the course of one long day. That's not as easy as it sounds, but it's invisible here. You're just with Andre and then Chelsea's with him, and they collide and get all tangled up for like 15 straight hours. Rock isn't just going for the joke here. This is a film about someone seriously struggling with recovery and what that means and what that takes. It doesn't treat Andre as a joke. But it's often painfully funny, and overall, It's one of this holiday season's best adult films.
It's also smarter and richer and more mature than the “romantic comedy” needs to be, and seems to promise a whole new Chris Rock. If I could give an award to the best surprise I've had watching all the end of the year films, I'd give it to this one, and I'm excited to see it again. That's my ultimate barometer of whether a film is worth noting at the end of the year. If I don't have to watch a film twice, then I must want to watch a film twice, and no matter where “Top Five” lands on my own end of the year list, it's one of the films of 2014 that I'll definitely see again.
“Top Five” is in theaters in limited release on December 5, then open everywhere on December 12.