Back in 2014, Chris Rock debuted Top Five at the Toronto International Film Festival. He directed, wrote, and starred in the movie, which undeniably felt more personal than most of his previous roles. This was a comedy (with romantic elements) that included occasionally dramatic moments, but more importantly, it was a semi-autobiographical story about a stand-up comedian (Andre Allen) who was attempting to be a so-called serious actor (and it wasn’t going well for Mr. Allen). Rock’s film debuted to critical acclaim at TIFF, and a surprised Rock told Deadline that he’d had trouble getting the movie listed in the festival. This wasn’t a totally serious movie, but clearly, he was having a hard time being taken seriously. As a result, Rock felt gratified by the reception, and he suggested that perhaps more heavily dramatic moments were coming.
“As a comedian, if you’re going to do a drama you’ve got to really do a f*cking drama,” Rock declared at the time while discussing the difficulty of moving outside his comedic box. “Like, some sh*t has to happen for people to accept that you’re not making them laugh.” He further remarked that he’d love to be like Matt Damon, who can be funny or “just pop up in Interstellar and be great.” Yet to play a role like Andre Allen, Rock had to create it himself. Otherwise, he’s content to still be working as an entertainer, and yes, he has always been entertaining, even as a zebra in those blasted Madagascar movies.
Look, I loved Top Five. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but Rock infused wit with vulnerability and laced the film with sharp social commentary (while semi-unloading on himself). Many years after 1991’s New Jack City, in which Rock embodied a tragic drug addict named Pookie, I hoped that his launching of an unexpected “hot TIFF buy” was a stepping stone for him to tiptoe into deeper waters. Well, a lot has happened to Rock since Top Five, and he’s told everyone about it, as anyone who’s watched his 2018 Netflix stand-up special, Tamborine, can attest. That special, part of a national, sold-out tour, actually felt like a public self-therapy session. It felt seemed as if he was channeling his Top Five protagonist, albeit a more brutal version. He grew confessional, announcing his divorce and taking the blame for his infidelity and porn addiction.
Heavy stuff. Yet Rock kept his audience laughing throughout the set.
Fast forward a few more years, and Rock has circled away from comedy again. He’s about to debut in an unmistakably dramatic role with FX’s Fargo, in which he plays a 1950s crime boss named Loy Cannon. As he told Hollywood Reporter, it’s “the best role I’ve ever had.” Having screened the season, I can say that yes, that’s objectively correct. Even though I still prefer seeing Rock’s vulnerable (and emotional, if not outright dramatic) side in Top Five, he gives an understated yet menacing performance in Fargo‘s fourth season. What’s also very clear is that this is the first time in a long time that someone (who is not Chris Rock) hired Chris Rock to play something other than — let’s face it — straight-up-funny-voiced Chris Rock.
Since landing the Fargo gig, Rock created another “different” type of role for himself: producing and starring in a Saw reboot, which looks like a bloody and bleak take on buddy-cop tropes. Like Fargo, Spiral: From The Book Of Saw was intended for a spring 2020 release. So, we have to wait, but there’s more: Rock recently disclosed that he’s spending seven hours per week in therapy, digging through his childhood trauma and his recently diagnosed nonverbal learning disorder — meaning that he misses the 80-ish% of communication that is nonverbal (“And all I understand are the words”).
Ladies and gentlemen, Chris Rock wrote and pulled off Top Five (which, if you haven’t gathered, I think you should watch if you have not) and performed in the aforementioned New Jack City role (also very good) long before his diagnosis. He’s now getting a renewed taste of dramatic acting in Fargo, so there’s every reason to believe that he could go on to more roles of this caliber. (Or not! Look at whatever Adam Sandler is doing after Uncut Gems.) What I’m saying is this: there’s potential for Rock’s Fargo role to not be the last time he gets serious onscreen, especially if he’s working hard on understanding nonverbal cues. This endeavor will benefit him in his everyday personal life, yes, but it’s also a hell of a way to hone one’s acting skills.
I’m trying to armchair-psychology anyone. I’m simply suspecting, after watching Rock’s surprisingly restrained performance (a rarity for him, no matter how you paint it) in Fargo, that Chris Rock has really caught the acting bug now. If that’s the case, may we all reap the benefits of such a career transition. He could very well break people’s hearts again like he did as the doomed, desperately-addicted Pookie. He’s not tied into any future Fargo seasons, so who knows where he’ll go from here. I hope he mixes it up. In other words, watch out because it could happen.
Underneath it all, Rock will remain bitingly funny. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but no one can deny that he’s done everything to mine laughs on the big screen, including a nude sky-fall in Kevin Smith’s Dogma. Even doing voice work, no one can accuse him of being less than enthusiastic with his effort. Speaking of which, one of the funniest (and most accurate) things that Chris Rock has ever done is to freely call himself (and his Hollywood peers) out at the 2012 Oscars for accepting so much money for standing in a booth and uttering a few lines, which he called “the easiest job in the world.” He’s ready for more, and Fargo‘s fourth season is here to that effect.
FX’s ‘Fargo’ returns for Season 4 on Sunday, September 27.