REVIEW WRITTEN BY TONY HICKSfirstname.lastname@example.org
It seems Chris Rock woke up one day, the clouds parted, and a beam of sunshine spilled through the window and warmed his brain. And he thought, “What am I doing spending all this time in cartoons and bad Adam Sandler movies?”
He is, after all, arguably America’s best stand-up comedian, yet has represented years of underachievement when it comes to film.
Which is why “Top Five” is such an absolute delight. It’s not Oscar-worthy, unless the Academy suddenly comes up with a best comeback category. But it’s a winner. At times, especially during its first third, it seems to be little more than Rock blasting one-liners around a script and a cast that are a bit too refined. Then the movie shift gears fairly dramatically, finds its emotional groove and becomes a charmingly clever vehicle for Rock to show what he can do, not only as a writer and a director, but as an actor who, while mostly playing Chris Rock, ultimately comes across as really likable.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a stand-up comic who went into movies and, ironically, became trapped by an immensely popular character he hates, the hilariously ridiculous “Hammy,” which is some sort of cop in a bear suit. Allen made three Hammy movies while his alcoholism and drug use spiraled and sent him to rehab.
Now four years sober, he wants to shed his image and become a serious artist. It won’t be easy. He’s promoting his new, awful-to-the-point-of-laughter movie about Haitian freedom fighters who kill thousands of white people during a slave uprising. He’s also become the star of a reality show about his relationship with beautiful but shallow Erica (Gabrielle Union) and their wedding preparations (which will, of course, be filmed).
Then he meets Chelsea (a magnetic Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter who is also a recovering alcoholic and wants to spend the day with him for a profile. The pair walk the streets of New York exchanging Woody Allen-esque observations and questions that turn the interview into a dialogue revealing much about both of them. The deepening relationship — which forces Andre to take a good look at himself — fuels the film’s growth. But not before we get a hilarious hitting-rock-bottom flashback scene featuring a wonderfully over-the-top Cedric the Entertainer. It’s almost designed to get the belly laughs out of the way so you can take the film a bit more seriously (no worries, there are still scattered laughs, especially from unlikely crooner DMX and a wincingly funny sequence about Chelsea’s recent ex-boyfriend).
While the movie is Rock’s, he wrote great character roles for his fellow cast members, allowing them to do much of the heavy comedic lifting (and name their top five rappers, a plot thread that gives the film its title). We meet Andre’s money-grubbing dad (Ben Vereen), his ex-girlfriend (the whirling Sherri Shepherd) and confused childhood friend (Tracy Morgan, in a bittersweet appearance, given reports since his car accident that he might never be able to work again). J.B. Smoove plays Andre’s scene-stealing lifelong friend and bodyguard, who is to Andre what Jiminy Cricket is to Pinocchio. Some suddenly topical references to Bill Cosby, rape and police chokeholds also appear.
A bachelor party features cameos from Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg and a slightly unhinged Jerry Seinfeld making it rain $100 bills, and an eventual twist flips the movie on its head, quickens the pace, and instills a sort of sweet desperation into Andre and Chelsea’s relationship. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll likely leave the theater smiling. And when’s the last time you cold say that about a Chris Rock movie?
“Top Five” * * *
Rating: R (strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language, some drug use) Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Ben Vereen, Sherri Shepherd, J.B. Smoove
Director: Chris Rock
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes