I love Chris Rock, the comic, but I’ll confess that I’ve never been a big fan of Chris Rock, the actor. He’s never quite seemed comfortable in his roles, and his most successful roles always seem like he’s just doing standup bits in the middle of a movie. It’s a shame, because Rock is a smart, funny guy who is charismatic as hell, but even his best films have never been particularly compelling, in no small part because he himself never feels fully realized as an actor.
That all changes with Top Five, his newest project, and easily his best film as well as his best performance. That should come as no surprise given that the film is clearly his project — Rock wrote, directed, and stars in it, and the lead character, Andre, is clearly modeled after some elements of his own life experiences. It’s a heartfelt, rawly honest picture that has its stumbles, but the endgame is absolutely worth any hiccups you encounter along the way.
Andre is a comedian who hit it big a decade or so ago, and promptly went on a hot streak of commercially successful, critically reviled, soulless studio projects. He’s lost his thrill for comedy, and now is pursuing more serious fare, a move that’s being met with everything from confusion to trepidation to outright scorn from everyone around him, including his agent (Kevin Hart) and his best friend/bodyguard (J.B. Smoove). He’s reluctantly roped into spending the day with a New York Times reporter named Chelsea (Rosario Dawson). Instead of yet another fluff piece, Chelsea pushes and pushes until she can finally get something real out of him in a search for “rigorous honesty.” Along the way, of course, we learn more about Chelsea as well, and their relationship grows more intense and more complicated as they discover important truths about themselves and each other.
That sounds like the beginning of a cheesy, treacly love story, but thankfully Rock is more clever than that. The journey that they undertake is brilliantly complicated, and it’s not just a journey through Andre’s life, but also a series of metaphors for the numerous issues plaguing Hollywood and particularly black actors. It uses every black movie trope available, pitching them relentlessly at the screen until each one shatters and reveals the roots behind it, as well as the truths and falsehoods within those tropes. We journey to his loud, rambunctious family that still lives in low-income housing., we see Chelsea as a single mom who lives with her mom, we see Rock trying — and hilariously failing — to live the wild, hip hop lifestyle that’s so relentlessly glamorized. There’s substance abuse (both Andre and Chelsea are in recovery), relationship issues (Andre’s engaged to a determined reality star played to perfection by Gabrielle Union), issues with fame and wealth, pretty much every cliche you can imagine from a Chris Rock film, thrust under a harsh light and turned on its head.
That unflinching examination is the film’s strongest point, and Rock doesn’t hesitate to show that underbelly of how minorities get pigeonholed in Hollywood (the fact that this is being released on the same day as Exodus: Gods And Kings is just the sweetest irony ever). The film’s other strength is that it simply has a lot of heart to it. Rock feels genuine here, like a real person afflicted with real life problems, who is dealing with them with something between resignation and desperation, a man drowning in his own success and wanting desperately to become not just relevant again, but worthy of his own respect. Dawson is absolute perfection as his foil, serving as an explorer, carefully digging into his past and present as she tries to excavate the truths that he’s never told anyone. Yet that role has much more nuance, for Chelsea has her own fully developed persona and sense of agency, with her own goals and agendas that are at times radically at odds with Andre’s.
Strangely, the film is weakest when it’s trying too hard with its humor. There’s a strange dichotomy between its genuine, loving humor that stems from its relationships and the more forced, extreme humor that’s more blatantly and deliberately madcap comedy. The former works stupendously — Andre’s visit to his family, which includes SNL alums Tracey Morgan, Michael Che, and Leslie Jones as well as the likes of Hassan Johnson and Sherri Shepherd — is somehow adorable, profane, and hilarious all at the same time. The latter is far more hit or miss — Andre’s bonkers story of an alcohol-fueled orgy in his past hits the profane part out of the park, but strikes out in that it’s never really that funny. Similarly, there’s a weirdly uncomfortable subplot involving a gay man that just … misses. I haven’t quite unraveled whether it was truly offensive or just truly stupid, but it never quite worked in context.
But the misses are rarer than the hits, and it’s important to realize that while Top Five is a funny movie, it’s not a comedy in the conventional sense. Rock has some critically important things to say, and he is massively successful at making his voice heard. The film is rife with metaphor, but they’re eloquently made and often painfully accurate. Top Five is a great damn movie — funny, emotionally affecting, sweet, occasionally obnoxious and clumsy — but more interestingly is the fact that it might just be a damn important movie too.