Writer/director/star Chris Rock’s Top Five is all about hitting bottom. Andre Allen (Rock) is a famous comedian whose hit film franchise Hammy the Bear brought him fame, wealth and…a desire to be taken seriously. But his efforts to make a film about a Jamaican slave rebellion entitled Uprize!, have been met with a collective yawn from the press, and viewers are staying away in droves.
While doing publicity for the film, Andre is forced to spend the day with Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) a New York Times reporter who wants him to be honest with her. She is especially interested in—and skeptical about—his upcoming marriage to his reality TV girlfriend, Erica (Gabrielle Union).
The interview interplay between Chelsea and Andre forms the spine of this talky film, and Rock’s self-effacement and Dawson’s undeniable charms are what make Top Five so engaging. When she asks him when he lost his ability to be funny, Andre recounts a trip to Houston where he got involved in a sordid sexual escapade in a hotel room. When he catches Chelsea at a personal low moment, she describes an act of revenge she perpetrates on someone who did her wrong. In keeping with the theme of bottoming out, it involves ass-play.
The film’s humor is crude during these episodes, which generate some hearty bellylaughs, but most of the comedy in the first few reels of Top Five come at the expense of women, gays, Asians, the overweight and other oppressed groups. Rock, however, is an equal opportunity offender. His film also skewers race and class, as well as press junkets and reality TV. Andre even receives a nasty remark from a woman he passes on the street in a moment right out of The King of Comedy. And Top Five is not unlike that brilliant, sour comedy in its smart depiction and discussion of our fascination with celebrity culture.
When the film is at its most serious, Andre, like Chelsea, battles his alcoholism. His life spins out of control in one particular moment and he hits a different kind of bottom. That Andre is pathetic when he should be sympathetic may be the point of Top Five. But viewers will find themselves caring about Andre and Chelsea as they have come to know these characters during the course of their day together and that is the strength of the film. Rock is as Andre says—“rigorously honest”—and the film turns a corner when a character reveals something unexpected and real. It is in this moment when Top Five really hooks viewers who, like Andre, must recalibrate what they thought they knew.
While the dramatic moments are what give the film its heart and poignancy, there are some terrific comic set pieces that range from Andre’s visit home to his bachelor party. The most hilarious scene features a cameo by DMX and there is a fantastic and darkly funny stand up routine Andre does at a club called the Comedy Cellar.
Yes, Top Five is best when it’s at the bottom.
Top Five opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.