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Top Five

I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to this one. Leaving aside the title that says precisely nothing, this looked like yet another movie made exclusively to pander to black audiences in the wake of Tyler Perry. Yes, it stars Chris Rock, but so what? The guy’s a legendary stand-up comedian, sure, but it’s been a very long time since he made a film worth watching. I assume. Can anyone tell me if he was the least bit funny in Grown-Ups, What To Expect When You’re Expecting, or any of the Madagascar films? I’ve made a point to avoid them all like the plague.

Yet I was willing to give Top Five a shot because the critical reception has been overwhelmingly positive and it’s not like I have anything else to write about right now.

And oh my God, it was so good.

Writer/director Rock stars as Andre Allen, a former stand-up comic who soared to worldwide fame and fortune after playing Hammy, a hard-boiled cop inexplicably dressed as a bear. There was a trilogy of Hammy films and everyone wants to know when the fourth is coming. Unfortunately for the fans, Andre has decided that he’s done with comedy and he wants to make more serious and intellectual films. Thus he’s starring in Uprize, a biopic about the leader of the Haitian Revolution, which depicts thousands of white people getting brutally slain onscreen.

Naturally, doing press for that movie is no easy feat when everybody only wants to talk about Hammy and ask when Andre is going to be funny again. And the job gets even less easy. See, Andre is only days away from getting married to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), a reality TV star on Bravo. The wedding is of course getting televised to be seen by millions, so that’s another thing people want to talk about instead of Andre’s new movie. Even worse, the nuptials are getting micromanaged by the network, the publicists, and a whole bunch of other people who are neither Andre nor Erica. For his part, Andre just wants to get the whole thing over with, presumably so he can fight off the camera crew filming their honeymoon.

Oh, and there’s one other complication: Chelsea Brown, the New York Times reporter played by Rosario Dawson. She’s doing a profile piece on Andre, and so spends the entire day shadowing him while asking questions. Needless to say, she’s the love interest.

I’d give more backstory on Andre, but that would defeat the point and spoil the movie. See, the entire plot of the movie is designed to cut through all the artifice, past who everyone thinks Andre is, past who he thinks he is, who he wants to be, who he pretends to be, and figure out who he really is. Let me try and count the ways that this is done incredibly well.

First of all, the events of the film and Chelsea’s various questions lead Andre to take stock of the people in his life. We meet his friends, his family, and his agents, along with all the various celebrities, managers, journalists, etc. that he deals with as part of being an entertainer. All of these people are subject to the same question: Does he need them more badly than they need him? Erica is a great case in point: She’s a reality TV star on the top of the world while Andre’s career is at a low point, but she paradoxically became famous despite having no marketable skills. She could never act or write jokes like Andre could, even at his worst, yet Andre would be even lower than he is now (in so many ways) if he didn’t have her. So really, who is this marriage for?

The film absolutely works as an examination of celebrity culture and the shifting divide between public and private lives. Perhaps more importantly, it works as a phenomenal character study because everything feels authentic. After all, this is Chris Rock. He’s been in show business for decades, with various highs and lows to show for it. His career and his accomplishments speak for themselves. Nobody has to question his portrayal of a comedy actor who’s seen better days, and nobody has to doubt that Rock knows what he’s talking about when it comes to pop culture and the media. There’s really nothing to do but sit back and see what we can learn from him.

Yet the film’s greatest strength goes beyond Chris Rock. This is something that absolutely every cast member brings to the table, down to the least supporting actor, and it makes this movie truly spectacular: Vulnerability.

We learn what these characters are like in bed, and we see a lot of them naked as they indulge their sexual kinks. We see them with their families, as relatives joke around and tell embarrassing stories about each other. We see recovering alcoholics visibly struggle with their addictions, and we see the characters in those moments when they break down and lash out. Yet the movie also takes time to show us the characters when they’re truly happy and doing what they do best.

We’re seeing these characters at their best and their worst, which makes them so incredibly developed and immediately sympathetic. Perhaps more importantly, every last one of these characters is played with unwavering commitment. The actors always allow themselves to be vulnerable when the characters are vulnerable, which adds to the authenticity of the film as a whole. And when some tertiary character is on all fours in front of the camera, buck naked and gleefully offering his pale ass up for sex, that’s really saying something. That’s the level of vulnerability we’re talking about here.

Which brings me to the other reason why this level of vulnerability works so well for this movie: It makes the film funny as hell. Yes, a lot of the humor is juvenile in nature, and racial humor is a given when it comes to Chris Rock. Yet the jokes in this movie go to some very bold and clever places, providing just enough shock value to make the comedy surprising and funny. And again, because so much of the humor is delivered with confidence, and so many of the jokes are tied to the emotional development of the characters, the film can get away with lowbrow humor.

Regarding the current trend of improvised humor, I couldn’t really tell you how many of the jokes were scripted and how many were improvised. There were some moments when it felt like Rock and his costars were just making stuff up, but these moments are mostly limited to brief montages. Thus the editing cuts out the jokes that don’t work, preserving the jokes that land while arranging them with sharp comedic timing. In fact, the editing as a whole makes some remarkably clever use of cutaways and flashbacks. Great stuff.

As for miscellaneous notes, the cast is outstanding across the board. Rock cast a wide variety of very talented and famous actors (including a few cameo surprises that I don’t dare spoil here) and every single one of them gets a laugh. Every last one. No matter how small the appearances were, every last person in this cast got to do or say something memorable. I have very few nitpicks, except to say that some of the plot points could have been tighter. There’s of course a big climactic moment when Andre and Chelsea feel betrayed by each other and they eventually have to reconcile by the end. It’s a cliche that’s handled quite well here, but a cliche nonetheless. And of course, the eponymous “Top Five” gimmick is completely banal and has no place being in this movie, never mind being the source of the film’s title.

I want to stress emphatically that Top Five is an excellent film. It’s bold and daring in all the right ways, and the cast is superbly suited to the material. Not only does it work as a hilarious work of comedy, but the material is delivered in such a sincere and authentic manner that it works as a wonderful character drama and pop culture satire. Definitely give it a watch.

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