TORONTO – If you were to look over Chris Rock's lengthy and impressive career you might think he peaked with HBO's “The Chris Rock Show.” Or perhaps it was his string of Emmy-winning standup specials including 2008's “Kill the Messenger.” Or perhaps it was as the producer and co-creator of the critically acclaimed TV series “Everybody Hates Chris.” Well, happily, at the ripe young age of 49, Rock has hit a career high with his new film “Top Five,” which debuted at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival Saturday night.
The third movie written by, directed by and starring Rock after “Head of State” and “I Think I Love My Wive,” “Top Five” finds the comedian playing Andre Allen, a former stand up comedian turned movie star who is at a major turning point in his life. Best known for his character “Hammy” – essentially Rock in a bear costume with guns blazing yelling “It's Hammy time!” – and three blockbuster sequels, Andre has decided to stop making comedies. His first foray into “serious” films is about to hit theaters and, well, its prospects at the box office don't look good. He”s also days away from marrying a Bravo reality star, Erica Long (a fantastic Gabrielle Union), whose entire life is being chronicled in anticipation of the big day.
Much to Andre”s disdain, and while all this is swirling around, his manager (J.B. Smoove) convinces him to speak to a writer in the middle of a New York Times profile piece on him, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). Andre doesn't trust her after years of the paper's movie critic ripping his movies, but over the course of a few days they walk the streets of New York discovering secrets about each other while also providing commentary on the current state of the nation and pop culture.
Seemingly uncertain of how much to share with her, one of the first things Andre does is bring Chelsea to the housing projects where he grew up. This is the second hint after a very funny Kevin Hart cameo as Andre”s LA-based agent that many familiar faces from Rock”s comedy world will be appearing. In a small apartment, Chelsea meets a group of Andre”s old friends played by Sherri Shepherd, Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones and Michael Che. Rock lets this scene explode into one bit after another, bringing the best out of his actors while also documenting the environment where Andre”s comedic gifts were born.
As the hours pass, things become more intriguing when Andre and Chelsea discover they are both recovering alcoholics. Andre”s explanation of when he hit rock bottom (which we later discover wasn't really his lowest point) involves one of the film”s funniest and most shocking set pieces in a Houston hotel room. Spoiling more details would ruin the surprise, but it's worth noting the scene involves Cedric the Entertainer playing one of his most inspired characters in years. The other moment audiences will not be able to get out of their heads is a story told by Chelsea that involves her boyfriend Brad (Anders Holm of “Workaholics”). Truthfully, that”s all you need to know because to tease anything else would ruin the set-up and the joke (and it's worth the surprise).
Unlike his previous work, Rock has partially fashioned “Top Five” into a well thought out sequence of hilarious situations that continues to top itself as the film progresses. And just when you think the surprises are over, another famous face appears. These are comedy icons that either provide another remarkable story or are humbly self-deprecating within the context of a scene. It's worth noting that after the passing of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers over the past month, Rock has spoken eloquently about the history of American standup. He may, in fact, know the ins and outs better than any of his peers because he uses that knowledge masterfully in casting this picture. But where “Top Five” transcends its genre is with everything else Rock wants to touch upon.
It goes without saying that Rock has no interest in having his film turn out to be just another successfully funny comedy. Instead, “Top Five” is also a movie about the pains of sobriety. It”s a movie about the current state of race relations. It”s a movie about honesty and forgiveness. It's another searing indictment of the world of celebrity. It”s even a movie about the lasting legacy of hip-hop. And it all combines to smash you silly and leave you breathlessly wanting more.
With all due respect to Rock's achievement, a special mention has to go to Dawson's fine work here. From her underrated turn in Danny Boyle”s “Trance” to “25th Hour” to even “Seven Pounds,” she has shown signs of having a truly great performance in her back pocket. There is something about her collaboration with Rock, perhaps the New York setting or just a well-written character, that proves she's an actress who needs to be taken seriously. She likely won”t receive any special awards or honors for it, but Rock isn”t the only one who hits a creative peak in “Top Five.”
One of the first productions of Barry Diller and Scott Rudin”s IAC Films, “Top Five” should find a home with a major studio or mini-major by the time you read this review. And if said distributor is smart, they”ll get it into theaters sooner rather than later, because this is one comedy almost everyone is going to be champing at the bit to see.