Apr 18, 2015

Review: Top Five (2014)

Top Five is not Chris Rock's directorial debut. That honour actually goes to Head of State which was released eleven years ago to less than satisfactory results critically and financially. Besides directing an episode of Everybody Hates Chris, his next project was I Think I Love My Wife which was as uneven a movie as they come. Could Top Five be a case of third time's the charm?

I won't lie, I had an idea of what I thought Top Five would be like. Fair or not, I thought it would be an ensemble comedy movie, similar to something like This is the End. That was my impression and I was totally ready to accept that. I mean, just check out the cast right? With the likes of J.B. Smoove, Kevin Hart, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld and many many more, how could Top Five NOT be funny at the very least?


At a Glance

Genre: comedy, romance
Directed by: Chris Rock
Produced by: Eli Bush, Barry Diller, Scott Rudin, etc.
Written by: Chris Rock
Music by: Ludwig Göransson, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson
Running time: 102 minutes
Production company: IAC Films, Jax Media, Scott Rudin Productions
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures, Hollydan Works, Paramount Home Entertainment, etc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $12,000,000
Box office: $25,434,291 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Kevin Hart, Sherri Shepherd, J. B. Smoove, Romany Malco, Hayley Marie Norman, Karlie Redd, Rachel Feinstein, Dan Naturman, Rick Shapiro, Leslie Jones, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Tracy Morgan, Anders Holm, Cedric the Entertainer, Opie, Anthony, Michael Che, Ben Vereen, Whoopi Goldberg, Brian Regan, Jay Pharoah



Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is a successful but fading comedy star who who has the successful cop-comedy franchise Hammy the Bear under his belt. Despite being known as a funny guy, he wants to transition into doing more serious roles. His new film Uprize is about the little-known Haitian Revolution, but no one seems to care since everyone just wants to know when Hammy the Bear 4 is coming out. With Uprize tracking horrible, Andre accepts to have New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) follow him for the day in a last ditch effort to get his career back on track.


You know how I said that I was expecting Top Five to be a "normal" ensemble comedy film? I was completely wrong. It goes to show just how wrong you can be when you judge a book by its cover. Sure it's funny and it trumpets its humungous cast whenever it can, but Chris Rock honestly takes TF in a pretty interesting direction. It actually reminds me of the joke he made at the 2012 Academy Awards. Here it is:
 “I love animation because in the world of animation, you can be anything you wanna be. If you’re a fat woman, you can play a skinny princess. If you’re a short, wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man, you can play an Arabian prince. And if you’re a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra. You can’t play white? My God!”
He raised some eyebrows with this remark, but at the same time, Rock is completely right. There is a lack of roles for black actors in Hollywood films, even in animation. With Top Five, Chris Rock explores that reality with his character Andre Allen who struggles not only with being taken seriously outside the world of comedy as his relevancy wanes, but also with sobriety.

Andre Allen actually has a complicated relationship with comedy. The reality is that he was fueled by alcohol in his rise to fame. With prodding from his reality-TV fiancée Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), he decides to clean up his act and as a result, he feels as if his talent for comedy is gone. So you can easily empathize with Allen who wants to move on, but encounters non-stop calls for his bear-suited character Hammy. In fact you can empathize with any big name actor in Hollywood who seems to only be remembered playing a single character in a mega franchise. What happens when they want to move on?

Andre Allen finds a special connection with journalist Chelsea Brown who also struggles with sobriety. She's not afraid to ask him the tough questions and it's not like Andre has much leeway given where his career is going anyway. The script that Chris Rock has written for these two feels pretty natural and balanced in terms of the more over-the-top comedic moments. Rock doesn't do the heavy lifting for comedy in Top Five though and I quite enjoyed his more buttoned-down performance. It works surprisingly well.

Where most of the comedy comes from is this huge cast that Rock has amassed. In the end I came away impressed with quite a few of these big players who Chris Rock seems to just know what to write for them. Like, since when is Cedric the Entertainer this funny? What about DMX blowing my mind? I also personally love J.B. Smoove, so I was glad that he got one of the bigger roles in Top Five. I could go on about who else is good, but that would take a few too many paragraphs.

It hurts to say this, but who I thought felt out of place was Jerry Seinfeld. As funny as it might seem to put him in a Hammy the Bear-themed bachelor party at a strip club as the awkward, white Jewish guy, it falls a bit flat. I love the TV series Seinfeld to death, but I would've preferred a guy like Larry David taking his place here. It's an example I suppose of established players being put in a completely different situation which jives with the film's message, but Jerry just doesn't feel natural here.

Top Five is at times rib-achingly funny. Other times it isn't at all and that's OK. Chris Rock isn't trying to make it funny all the time which will probably take a few people by surprise. Instead, he tries to fit in some commentary on being a black actor in a mostly-white Hollywood. A lot of what Chris Rock's character has to contend with resonated with me and seeing this mega-cast in action is loads of fun. Not every joke is on point, but the ones that really matter are. It looks like the third time really is the charm for Chris Rock.



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