“You were in the movie! You were pretty good in the movie!” proclaimed Chris Rock at the beginning of press promotion time. He was calling out a noteworthy critic who made a cameo in his latest release from among the junket regulars. It was a dynamite meta-moment. For Rock, promoting a film about promoting a film seems to be at once business and pleasure, with the recognition that art imitates life.
“Top Five” has its inspired and hilarious moments, but it is not an example of exceptional filmmaking. Rock not only stars in the film but also wrote and directed it as well. His wit is apparent, but the performances and story could have used the guidance of a more seasoned director.
Rosario Dawson’s portrayal of young and hungry journalist confirms she’s a pro who infuses her character with spontaneous life. Gabrielle Union presents the complexities of what could have been a truly shallow caricature. Sherri Sheperd is adorably full of fire and noise, but not much else, and J.B. Smoove is doing his best to prove he deserves to be in Rock’s movie. The story is not terrible. However, the sporadic moments of sheer brilliance were strung together by gratuitous montages and oversimplified storytelling.
The movie often uses a Woody Allen-esque walk-and-talk device, as the main characters lecture each other on the state of our current culture, covering everything from dating to racism. Chelsea Brown (Dawson) observes a day in the disastrous life of comedian Andre Allen (Rock) while he is in eleventh-hour promotion of his newest movie. His career is on the verge of ruin, and his confidence hinges on the unlikely success of that day’s film opening.
Meanwhile, his reality star fiance’s wedding plans are receiving more acclaim than the protagonist’s attempts to be taken seriously. The movie star and journalist discuss life on life’s terms, with the diversity of Manhattan’s neighborhoods as their sensational backdrop. If Allen treats New York with the tenderness of an old-fashioned love affair, Rock looks at it like a jaded fling. Beyond substituting a Gershwin soundtrack with Def Jam’s catalogue, the story’s pace is frantic in a way that mimics a stand-up act.
The issue of recovery is the glue that holds the film’s overwrought plotlines together. Allen is a recovering alcoholic, seeking to reclaim his reputation, courage and sense of wonder. Brown is his relentless foil, whose self-awareness he aspires to. The plot aggressively handles fame as the ultimate drug, a lifestyle loaded with temptation. This dark side is succinctly addressed early on by Union’s attention-obsessed character, who says, “If it’s not on camera, it doesn’t exist.”
Without a doubt, Rock is initiating a reinvention of Black film with this project. The film attempts to shrewdly discuss apathy while also ironically handling despair and isolation in the entertainment industry. It may have succeeded if only Rock had the diligence to pair down the quantity of messages he tried to deliver or saved some of the off-color moments for another film.
The title “Top Five” references the practice of listing five favorite people, places or things, particularly rappers and comedians. Evidently, in pre-production, Rock considered his own lists and impresses the audience via his Rolodex. After calling in a few favors, his A-list friendships lend some cheek to the Hollywood dream-nightmare narrative. These cameos deliver several thrills, especially in the third act, where an exceptional jailhouse instance rivals Tom Cruise’s turn in “Tropic Thunder”.
“Top Five” blends urbanity with raunchy humor. While there are numerous belly laughs and heartfelt moments, this film falls just short of the modern masterpiece it might have been.