As you might expect, Top Five is hilarious. Pretty much from beginning to end, the film hits us hard with all kinds of differently structured jokes and funny situations and just great scenes of smart, humorous people chilling out, and it delivers most of it with the unchecked volume and cadence that defines Chris Rock. Its comedy is loud, truthful, not afraid to get silly (maybe sometimes too silly), and really wants to get you laughing from deep down.
But Top Five is really a drama, and what surprises me most about it is how quiet and subtle Chris Rock allows its darker moments to get. While some viewers may feel uneasy at some of the tonal games this movie plays, I found myself more impressed by Rock’s willingness to put so much laughter into what’s essentially a story about a very sad man. He doesn’t always nail it, but he gets close enough to create a movie that entertains despite some rough edges.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a comedian who made a gazillion dollars playing a bear cop in a series of dignity-destroying,Tracy Jordan-esque Hollywood movies. As the film begins, Allen has abandoned comedy altogether in favor of being taken seriously as an artist with "Uprize!," a film about a bloody Haitian slave revolt. He’s also about to enter a loveless marriage with a reality TV star. On the eve of all this, Rosario Dawson shows up to follow and interview him, giving the movie reason enough for him to just talk talk talk about his whole life.
There is an obvious Stardust Memories thing going on here, but the Woody Allen parallels don’t stop there. Top Five is very much a “walk around New York and talk” kind of movie, with all sorts of chronological shifts and funny flashbacks thrown in. It’s free and loose and fun, and I’m so glad that Chris Rock made it.
But like I said before, there are tonal problems. Allen’s flashback to how he hit bottom as an alcoholic ends up being an unwelcome and extended sex-romp comedy set piece right when the film feels like it’s preparing to get serious, as it does with the many other alcoholism-related points it makes. This is one of the more egregious examples of Rock’s trouble with tone, but there are others. Meanwhile, some parts perfectly nail the kind of simultaneous hilarity and narrative drama Rock’s going for - particularly one jail cell scene late in the film that probably shouldn’t be spoiled. We can see that Rock has what it takes to make a truly great film, but this isn’t quite it yet.
That doesn’t mean it’s not good, however. Top Five isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely worth seeing, if only for the amazing cameos and comedy performances the film offers. Where else are you going to see Jerry Seinfeld share a frame with a naked stripper?! These aren’t just empty cameos either. Top Five has one of the best Adam Sandler performances in years. There’s a scene where Allen hangs out with his old neighborhood friends (you will recognize every face in the room) that could be the funniest movie of the year if it just kept going for another hour. There is a ton to like here, not the least of which is Chris Rock’s obvious potential as a filmmaker. One day he’s going to get all the way there, and it’s going to be very exciting to sing his praises when he does.