Top Five (dir. Chris Rock)

Posted: December 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

The surface message of “Top Five” doesn’t make sense in a film written and directed by Chris Rock.  That surface message is: it’s okay if you’re only good at one thing, because some people aren’t good at anything, so embrace that one thing you’re good at and don’t try to branch out to something you’re not good at.  This message is made abundantly clear when we’re forced to hear DMX (playing himself) sing a heartfelt, non-rap song in a prison cell.  It’s awful.  The thing is, though, this is a movie written and directed by Chris Rock.  That alone makes the message weird.  Rock was and is one of the best stand-up comedians alive.  Is this the thing he does best?  Most would say yes.  Still, he wrote and directed this film, which is a mix of comedy and drama (mostly the latter, in my opinion), co-wrote and directed two others, is an actor, and even created a TV series (“Everybody Hates Chris”).  Chris Rock is one man who is talented at more than one thing, and in interviews comes across as a person who gets angry when people only see his humor and not his fierce intelligence.

So why would a multi-talented man make a movie that seems to argue that many people only have one talent and should just stick to that?  Honestly, I have no clue.  The opening scene of the film may point to something. Rock plays Andre Allen, a comedian and actor who got tired of playing in bad comedies where he was stuck in a bear suit.  This is partially because his mother died, but more due to getting sober after being quite the alcoholic.  In one of the film’s funniest scenes, we flash back to 2003 and Andre’s trip to Houston, which involves two prostitutes and a really whacky Cedric the Entertainer.  That’s all I’ll say here to not ruin anything, but there’s a shot of Rock laying on a bed in the fetal position that had me hysterically laughing.

Not wanting to do comedies anymore, Andre had made a film about the Haitian Revolution.  The footage of this film-within-a-film that we see involves Rock with an over-the-top expression, wielding a machete, and yelling “Kill all the White People”.  It’s like something out of “Tropic Thunder”, as are the scenes of Andre’s successful “Hammy the Bear” movies, where Andre wears a really unrealistic bear suit and shoots people from the top of a police car repeating the phrase “It’s Hammy time!” ad nauseam.   The Haiti movie is expected to bomb, but Andre still hopes that’s not the case, and through the earlier part of the film we follow him on a press junket that feels like it must be autobiographical for Rock.  We know actors hate press junkets and having to answer the same moronic questions over and over again, and my guess is the scene where Andre is doing a promo for a radio station and is told to “put some stank on it” comes from real life.

The biggest press Andre does, reluctantly, is allow himself to be followed all day by Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), a reporter from the New York Times, a paper that had given Andre scathing reviews in the past for his work.  Throughout the day they start with animosity but begin to grow together as two intelligent people with commonalities will do if they talk long enough.  Some scenes between the two of them resemble an urban version of Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” series, though most of the film truly feels like Woody Allen territory (both Rock and frequent collaborator Louis CK like to pay homage to Allen….naming the main character Andre Allen might be an homage).

So back to that opening scene:  Andre and Chelsea argue about whether sometimes a movie is just a movie or a song is just a song, or if there is always something underneath.  Andre believes the latter, though the scene ends with him claiming he can’t get a taxi in New York as a black man, yet he gets the second one which passes to stop for him.  Does that mean the film is arguing the surface message is all there is to this film?  Or does the taxi stopping not relate to the message argument?  (They also talk about how much has changed in America with a black president in this scene, so it may be related to that subject instead, or both subjects).  Later in the film, Andre discusses a conspiracy theory that “Planet of the Apes” is about white fears of a black takeover of Earth (which may be true), but then links the murder of Martin Luther King the day after the film opened  to the film itself (conspiracy theory).  Perhaps that is a warning not to read too much into the film? I don’t know.  I only know that Chris Rock is a very intelligent man and may have injected his film with multiple layers of meaning, while I’m stuck with a confusing surface message that doesn’t make sense coming from him.  I could understand that surface message coming from, say, Adam Sandler, who makes a cameo in this film and has been stuck making shitty comedies even though his best films, arguably “Punch Drunk Love” and “Reign Over Me”, are dramas that did okay-to-bad business.  In fact, Sandler’s film “Funny People” covers similar ground to this film.

Rock’s film career has not followed the same trajectory as Sandler’s.  Sure, Rock has made some shitty movies, such as “Lethal Weapon 4” and “Grown Ups 2”, but he’s also made some really good stuff, like “I Think I Love My Wife”.  Still, the former two made money and the latter bombed.  I guess the difference between Sandler and Rock is that when Rock makes bad movies, we forgive him because his stand-up is universally praised, but Sandler doesn’t really do much else except make “Blended” or “Just Go With it” and other shitty comedies that his target audience has since outgrown. Hell, the Sony leaks show even his studio is sick of his shit, which may have prompted his Netflix deal.  But I digress.  Rock is largely respected, though perhaps he doesn’t feel like he is.

On the main message of the film, I feel that I’ve failed.  I understand the surface message, but I don’t believe the film is actually arguing that message.  Luckily, the secondary message of the film is crystal clear: Rock hates artifice and phoniness.  His character Andre is engaged to a reality star (Gabrielle Union) who is filming the entire lead up to the wedding live for Bravo.  In one on-the-nose scene late in the film, she confesses to Andre that she has no talent and reality TV is all she has.  In the film she also lies to Andre a few times, makes personal decisions based on what network heads want, and shows no signs of actually loving Andre.  She even later admits to blowing Andre in their relationship as a way of being able to call in a big favor later.  (This, along with two women falsely claiming rape, and another woman describing her promiscuous sexual past, not to mention thieving strippers, kind of cast a sexist pall over the entire film, which is my one major quibble with the film).  Aside from the fiancé, we also get prostitutes pretending to be horny fangirls, a reporter having multiple aliases and secrets, unfaithful comedians who advise to never admit their unfaithfulness, and many other characters that lie, hide things, and keep things secret.  Phoniness and artifice are a major theme in this film, and Andre himself is trying to fool himself into thinking he’s tired of comedies, when really he’s just scared.

One thing I have to point out about Rock is something that seems to have carried on from his last directorial effort, the underrated “I Think I Love My Wife”.  In that film, Rock played a man who was fairly unhappily married and is tempted with a fun, sexy ex-girlfriend who really wants him.  That film was trying to argue that Rock’s character should stay with his wife, but his wife in that film (Gina Torres) was portrayed as a completely unlikeable shrew, to the point where you were hoping he would just cheat on his damn wife.  In “Top Five”, we barely see Andre’s fiancé, and what we do see of her is merely her phony, reality TV persona, and we sense no love, affection, or connection between her and Andre.  When Andre and Chelsea begin to drift closer, we as an audience also want Andre to cheat on his fiancé.  This raises the question as to why Chris Rock makes films which make audiences encourage cheating.  The only other film Rock has directed was the goofy comedy “Head of State”, which doesn’t feature this, but both “I Think I Love My Wife” and “Top Five” are actually more dramas than comedies, and both have an indie film feel (the former was based on a 1972 French film), and my guess is they say more about Rock’s psyche than any of his other films.

“Top Five” is often funny, and scenes involving hot sauce and, later, Jerry Seinfeld, are as funny or funnier than anything else I’ve seen in the theater all year.  I especially like Rock giving a few jabs to Tyler Perry.  However, the film is more of a drama and you do feel, as you watch it, that there’s more going on than meets the eye.  At the very least, it seems that Rock has learned from his mistake in how he ended “I Think I Love My Wife” (in the audio commentary to that film he admitted not knowing how to end it) and this time gives the audience and his main character what they really want.  I wish I could say I truly knew what Rock was trying to say with this film, but I don’t.  That surface message makes no sense coming from Rock.  The industry jabs; the inside baseball; and even the visual gag of an apartment in the projects that has pictures of Obama, Jesus (a WHITE Jesus, mind you), and Dr. King hanging on the walls, but a coffee table full of alcohol, is an edgy indictment of the lofty aspirations of certain segments of the black community who then do nothing to reach their supposed heroes; these are all very interesting avenues to explore, and Rock’s hatred of artifice is hard to misinterpret.  Beyond that, though, I don’t know why Rock chose to make this film this way.  What’s your film REALLY trying to say, Chris? B


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