As a sometime leading actor, frequent supporting player, and occasional writer-director, Chris Rock has managed to carve out a successful three-decade career. His earlier, relatively broad comedies, Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife, were far from commercial and critical hits, though both films had their vocal defenders. Middling commercial success may have made financing Rock’s third film, Top Five, an African-American-centered, serio-comic riff on Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, more difficult, but while the final product reveals Rock to be more than just a comedian going for the broad, easy, crowd-pleasing joke, Top Five isn’t without its share of flaws, particularly in the depiction of the rote, obligatory, occasionally troubling romance at the center of Top Five.
When we first meet Rock’s character, Andre Allen (the surname a clear link to one of Rock’s cinematic mentors, Woody Allen), he’s hours away from the debut of his first attempt at adult-oriented, non-comedic filmmaking, “Uprize,” a straight-up, self-consciously serious drama centered on a Haitian slave rebellion. It’s tracking for a semi-disastrous opening weekend, but that doesn’t stop Allen from doing the usual last-minute publicity to help raise awareness and maybe even bring some of his one-time fans to the film. Given Allen’s previous track record as the lead as the talking, joking, machine-gun wielding Hammy the Bear, chances are, “Uprize” could tank not just career as a dramatic actor, but his career period.
Top Five takes a few shots, some deeper than others, at our celebrity-obsessed culture, specifically with Allen’s upcoming nuptials to a reality-TV star, Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). Allen credits Erica with helping him get sober, but it’s clear from the start that Erica cares less for Allen than for what he can do for her career, up to and including various endorsements and brand placements at their upcoming wedding. A prearranged all-day interview with Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter profiling Allen for a feature piece, gives Top Five both narrative impetus and the character-revealing discussions between Allen and Chelsea that ultimately lead to the potential for romance.
As a writer-director, Rock takes more than a few narrative shortcuts or cheats, often relying on wrong-headed ideas about journalism and criticism both for easy laughs and to keep the audience firmly on his side. Allen detests the New York Times’ mean-spirited, never-seen film critic, James Neilson. Neilson represents everything wrong and nothing right about film critics who, at least in Rock’s view of them in Top Five, are more interested in clever, ego-boasting takedowns than reviewing films in good faith. That’s less of a problem, however, than Chelsea’s lack of ethics. Not only does she have a conflict of interest — revealed late in the film — but her brand of confessional reporting has little connection, if any, to what the New York Times actually does.
While the confession-based romance rarely feels authentic or organic (because it isn’t), Top Five becomes far more compelling, not to mention flat-out funnier, when Allen ventures into flashback territory, detailing various lows of his career, or when he makes a pit-stop to visit his old friends and family, played by past and current Saturday Night Live performers including Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Michael Che, and Jay Pharaoh, among other current and one-time luminaries of the comedy world (e.g., Cedric the Entertainer, Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld). Top Five takes its title from a recurring discussion about each character’s top five all-time rappers (usually drawn from differing eras and styles). Without intimate knowledge of hip-hop history, Top Five will make at least some moviegoers feel like they’re on the outside looking in.