If there was a comedian hall of fame, Chris Rock would certainly be in it. Bigger and Blacker is one of the defining works of the late nineties, and there aren’t many comedians as mainstream popular as Chris Rock who are also as respected (read: not sh*tty). He’s been trying to take his stand up fame to the next level as an actor (a must for any comedian who wants to make money without living like a carney) since the early 90s, when he was one of the few actors to be a castmember on both SNL and In Living Color.
But with exceptions here and there, it’s always been a bit of a struggle to translate Chris Rock’s particular brand of funny to acting. I suspect stand-ups are mostly either writers or actors at heart. A select few seem equally talented at both – Patton Oswalt, Louis CK, Steve Martin, Amy Schumer, a couple others – but mostly it’s hard to be both insightful and a ham. Chris Rock has a southern preacher’s stage presence and a voice that makes everything he says ten times funnier than it should be, but I suspect his core skill has always been the ability to write a really tight joke about damn near anything (recently he showed that he’s also a compelling essayist). That skill doesn’t make him particularly well suited to play the wacky funny guy in an action movie or a rom-com, but in Top Five, Chris Rock is the sole-credited writer, director, and star, playing a fictionalized version of himself. Save stand up, it should be the best showcase yet for Chris Rock’s talents. Turns out, it’s both his best, most Chris Rock movie performance, and yet still a disappointment. Why?
Top Five takes place over the course of a few days in New York, in which Chris Rock’s character, Andre Allen, a lapsed comedian and recovering alcoholic famous for voicing “Hammy the Bear,” promotes his new prestige project about a Haitian slave rebellion, all while giving a day-long interview to a hip journalist chick with a half-shaved Skrillex haircut played by everyone’s down-to-Earth dream girl, Rosario Dawson. Along the way, flashbacks, celebrity cameos, and of course romance ensue, even though Allen is scheduled to be married to a Bravo reality star (Gabrielle Union) on live TV (ooh, I wonder if he’ll stay with the high maintenance one!). Oh, and Anders from Workaholics gets some stuff shoved up his ass, though I won’t spoil the what and how.
Stand-up comedy favors a relatable premise. Getting a roomful of people engaged in the topic before you get to the punchline usually matters a lot more than the actual punchline. As a comic, Chris Rock was the best at taking broad subjects and executing the joke just a little better than everyone else, often boiling it all down into one perfectly memorable, unmistakably Chris Rock catchphrase (“You could drive a car with your feet if you want to, that don’t make it a good f*ckin’ idea.”). As a movie writer, he seems to start with relatable in the same way, but without his own razor sharp stand up voice to cut it into a bit, familiar often becomes hokey, derivative, even tired. The recurring joke where Andre Allen is embarrassed by his “Hammy the Bear” movies seems like the same joke that was done better with Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock (Fat Bitch, Who Dat Ninja, A Blaffair to Rememblack), Jack Black’s character in Tropic Thunder (The Fatties: Fart 2), and Adam Sandler’s fake movies in Funny People. There’s a DMX cameo that feels like the Chris Rock version of the winky celeb cameo scene that’s the worst part of every Judd Apatow movie, and a recurring joke about JB Smoove’s fetish for big women that sees him propositioning Gabourey Sidibe. Dude, wasn’t this exact scene in Tower Heist?
When Andre Allen reads aloud a hurtful New York Times review (“I wouldn’t watch another Andre Allen film if it was playing on the inside of my eyelids”), it’s funny, but it also feels a lot like Jon Favreau doing the same thing in Chef (“Chef Carl Casper’s dramatic weight gain can only be explained by the fact he must be eating all the food sent back to the kitchen.”). Chef and Top Five came out the same year, and I highly doubt Chris Rock saw it before he wrote this, but whereas stand up favors being the first guy to skewer something that feels like it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue, with movies it’s much harder to control timing. And timing is often the only difference between brilliant and hack.
Other jokes feel like they want credit for being socially conscious without necessarily being that funny. In the first scene, Rock and Rosario are walking down a proverbial New York street arguing about whether we’re living in a post-racial society. Rosario says we’re going to have a Latina president someday, while Rock tries to illustrate that even with a black president, a black man still can’t get a cab in New York City. Just then, a cab screeches to a halt for him. Har har. Aside from the fact that the payoff is only sooorta funny, it feels less like a real conversation real people might have than a conversation Chris Rock’s idealized visions of urban sophisticates might have (a la Woody Allen). It feels more like an essay than a scene, and frankly I’d rather read the essay.
That’s the thing: Chris Rock keeps wanting to be a social commentator when this movie really needs him to be a character. There are enough tantalizing glimpses of it to make Top Five reasonably interesting – Andre Allen cutting a radio promo, Andre Allen fleeing the scene of a fender bender to avoid getting sued – but every time Rock gets a little vulnerable, he retreats into over broad cultural crit and the amorphous “you.” “Ya ever notice how little kids are always playing Angry Birds on their phone?!”