‘Top Five’: Sobering comedy from Chris Rock

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In “Top Five,” Chris Rock does triple duty as writer, director, and star.  He portrays Andre Allen, a former New York stand-up comic who has become a movie star. Does that sound like a thinly-veiled version of Rock’s own life?

Allen has portrayed the ridiculous cop character of Hammie the Bear in a wildly successful trilogy of blockbuster action comedies. Allen has grown tired of being repeatedly cast as an anthropomorphized ursine creature.  Moreover, he wants to stretch as an actor and do serious drama. So, he decides to walk away from the successful franchise.

Allen’s first foray into serious filmmaking is “Uprize,” a historical drama about the Haitian slave revolution. It’s heavy subject matter, which involves the slaying of 50,000 French colonials. In it, Allen portrays a machete-wielding, bare-chested rebel leader.

Allen goes on a promotional junket to plug “Uprize.” In audience appearances, fans clamor for him to reprise his beloved Hammie the Bear character in yet another sequel. Journalists assigned to interview Allen are depicted as being either ignorant or disdainful of the new direction in his career trajectory.

Predictably, Allen’s film proves to be an unmitigated disaster at the box office. As “Uprize” tanks, the latest schlock comedy by Tyler Perry (who sustains a repeated drubbing in this film) once again generates spectacular ticket sales.

While Allen is trying to rebound from the fiasco of “Uprize,” he faces another daunting challenge. He is affianced to reality TV star, Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), who is shallow, untalented, and insincere. Always scheming to advance her career, she coerces a reluctant Allen into having their nuptials broadcast on Bravo.

The lead film critic for “The New York Times,” James Nielson, has viciously savaged Allen in print. He has suggested that O.J. Simpson and Osama Bin Laden have brought to justice. According to the wag, it is now time for Allen to suffer a similar fate. Nielson also contended that he wouldn’t watch another Allen film, even if it was playing on his glasses. Ouch!

Allen is relieved when Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), rather than his journalistic bête noire, shows up to interview him for the paper. She convinces Allen to let her shadow him for a day. Brown kicks off her interview of Allen by posing the provocative question, “How come you’re not funny anymore?”

In some candid revelations, both Allen and Brown both disclose that they are recovering alcoholics with checkered pasts.  So, despite a rocky start, Allen and Brown spend time bonding in a manner, which goes far beyond the putative parameters of their professional relationship.

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Gabrielle Union, left, and Chris Rock in a scene from "Top Five." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Ali Paige Goldstein)

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Gabrielle Union, left, and Chris Rock in a scene from “Top Five.” (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Ali Paige Goldstein)

The film is wildly uneven, both in terms of quality and tone. The film is chocked full of laugh out loud moments. Among the comedic highlights is a scene with the seemingly ubiquitous Kevin Hart as Allen’s pragmatic agent. Replete with a series of n-bombs, Hart infuses the film with his irrepressible, high energy verbal dexterity.

A reception set the apartment of Allen’s one-time girlfriend (Sherri Shepherd) is similarly uproarious. She and her houseguests, Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Hassan Johnson, and Leslie Jones, all provide vivid characters and engagingly humorous observations, delivered with pitch-perfect timing. There, Allen and others reflect on what Tupac Shakur would have become if he hadn’t been shot. Some suggest that the rapper would have been elected President. Allen quips that instead he might be pushing Jill Scott down a stairwell.

Other assassinations figure prominently as fodder for comedy. Allen riffs on JFK’s unfortunate decision to order a convertible and the role of the original “Planet of the Apes” as a catalyst for the shooting of Martin Luther King. Allen’s childhood friend/personal assistant/bodyguard (J.B. Smoove) displays a penchant for big women. This provides the basis for a long-running gag.

Alas, some of the other comedic scenes fall flat or simply run too long. Moreover, “Top Five” careens between broad comedy and decidedly more serious subject matter. In one vignette, Allen unsuccessfully tries to avoid an encounter with a man (Ben Vereen), who is idly hanging out on the street with two of his chums. The man launches into a series of funny, albeit vicious, castigations of Allen. In a poignant moment, Allen advises Brown that the street hustler is his biological father.

The film also addresses many topical issues. This includes the nature of celebrity and reality TV in our post-modernist society, the uneasy relationship between publicists and journalists, substance abuse, sexual fetishes, racial relationships, as well as the inherent gender differences between men and women.

An early scene in “Top Five,” features a sexually explicit scene with Rock, Cedric the Entertainer (as a concert promoter), and two prostitutes.  This vignette is played for sheer laughs, not titillation. Despite all of its sexual content, “Top Five” lacks an egregious absence of erotic edge to it.

As Rock’s co-star, Rosario Dawson delivers a performance, which is absolutely incandescent.  Adorned with a dissymmetrical hipster haircut, Dawson is enormously appealing, not only for her pulchritude, but for the obvious intelligence that she projects. Dawson’s line readings, facial expressions, and  gesticulations are all spot-on. As constructed here, there are some incongruities in Dawson’s character. However that is the fault of Rock the writer, not Dawson as an actor.

This send-up of celebrity culture features a remarkable number of cameos. At this film’s depiction of the glitzy New York premiere of “Uprize,” Taraji P. Henson and Gabourey Sidibe  (“Precious”) both appear. The latter becomes the object of J.B. Smoove’s unrelenting pursuit. DMX does an a cappella rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Smile” from a jail cell. In a bachelor party at the strip club, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Whoopi Goldberg, are all on hand, trying to foist unsolicited advice on the protagonist.

Chris Rock’s background includes being a stand-up comedy on the club circuit, a four-year stint as a member of the “Saturday Night Live” cast, and a series of HBO specials. His promising career was hijacked by his involvement with a skein of execrable vehicles. When your résumé  is tainted with “Sgt. Bilko,” “Beverly Hills Ninja,”  “Lethal Weapons 4,” “Pootsie Tang,”“Pauly Shore Is Dead,” and a panoply of Adam Sandler junkers, it doesn’t exactly enhance your credibility.

Rock has long sought to escape from being strait jacketed in the stereotype as a fast-talking jokester. He has tried his hand at directing his own screenplay twice before. Both “Head of State” and “I Think I Love My Wife,” proved artistically unsatisfying.

Although “I Think I Love My Wife” was a misfire, it reflected Rock’s artistic ambitions. The film is essentially a remake of Eric Rohmer’s “Chloe in the Afternoon.” “Top Five” echoes some of the themes previously broached in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” which in turn borrowed from Fellini’s classic “8 1/2.” Rock has often cited Allen as a significant influence. Is it a mere coincidence that his character in “Top Five” shares the auteur’s surname or is it intended as a homage?

Admirably, Rock uses “Top Five” to address some serious subjects, somewhat atypical for a comedy of this sort. However, the vacillation in Rock’s screenplay between rollicking humor and more tonally subdued satire is not always propitious. Indeed, it is sometimes altogether disconcerting.

Courtesy of a bravura performance by Rosario Dawson and some hilarious contributions by the ensemble cast, “Top Five” is definitely well worth seeing. Just be prepared for a comedy, which comes with plenty of sobering material.

“Top Five” *** R (for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use)   101 minutes

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback  at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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