Thursday, December 18, 2014

TOP FIVE is Chris Rock's Annie Hall

TOP FIVE Review:

- Chris Rock is an undisputed champ when it comes to stand-up: for over two decades now, he's consistently delivered biting, memorable, drop-dead hilarious stand-up sets that have each become instant classics. But when it comes to movies, Rock has had less success. His previous two directorial efforts, Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife, were met with critical and box-office shrugs. But with TOP FIVE, Rock has found his cinematic mojo. For this one, Rock keeps it real - crafting a star vehicle for himself that is less high-concept silliness and more slice-of-life observational humor. This is Rock's Annie Hall, his Louie, his Curb Your Enthusiasm - and for that reason the movie works as both comedy and, at times, surprisingly poignant tale of a fading star trying to find dignity in a world that seems intent on denying it. TOP FIVE is gratifying because, finally, we get a film that captures the essence of Rock's comedic sensibility, and presents it to us unfiltered. If you've enjoyed Rock's stand-up (and who hasn't?), then you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

In TOP FIVE, Rock plays Andre Allen - an exaggerated version of Chris Rock - an actor and comic who, after ditching his best known role as costume-clad Hammy Bear, is attempting to direct and star in a Serious Drama about the Haitian Revolution. However, all the press wants to talk to Andre about his is soon-to-be-televised wedding to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). Erica - a vapid, fame-obsessed celebutante - is probably not the right woman for Andre. But in his own mind, he justifies the relationship by reminding himself that Erica helped him fight and beat his alcoholism - which, years ago, almost derailed his career entirely. But Andre begins to see the light when he meets Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), an NY Times reporter assigned to shadow him for a story. Chelsea, a single mother, quickly forms a bond with Andre - although their relationship takes a number of turns, as the truth comes out that Chelsea is not quite what she seems. Regardless, through Chelsea's prodding, we see the "real" Andre begin to come out of his fame-hardened shell. We visit his old inner-city stomping grounds (to hilarious effect). We see flashbacks as Andre recounts, to Chelsea, some of his lowest moments. We see that behind the sunglasses and flashy suits is a guy whose greatest, child-like joy is in debating Top 5 lists with friends (his go-to is the all-time greatest hip-hop artists).

By essentially playing a version of himself, Rock imbues TOP FIVE with a surprising emotional honesty. Andre can be an asshole, but there's an authenticity there that makes him likable and relatable all the same. The movie has an overall complexity that you don't see a lot in Hollywood comedies. More specifically, the central relationship between Andre and Chelsea is satisfyingly complex. There's romance and attraction, but there's also mistrust, lies, and other roadblocks in the way of these two being star-crossed lovers (not the least of which is Andre's impending marriage).

Rock seems comfortable playing Rock, and he has a great chemistry with Dawson. Dawson, meanwhile is absolutely fantastic in the film - this might be her best-ever role. Their banter while walking the streets of NYC definitely calls to mind classic Woody Allen - rather than build up the pair's attraction via obvious exposition, it reveals itself in small moments and delightfully charming back-and-forth conversation.

The movie's supporting cast is filled to the brim with greatness. Notably, Gabrielle Union is quite good as reality star Erica - giving the character multiple dimensions and making her more than just one-note. Additionally though, the movie is packed with fantastic and hilarious actors in smaller roles. Tracy Morgan kills it as a back-home friend of Andre's, as does SNL's Leslie Jones. J.B. Smoove is his typical brand of fast-talkin' awesome as Andre's manager, and Kevin Hart also gets in some great lines as Andre's agent. Cedric the Entertainer is a surprise scene-stealer as a perverse comedy promoter, and Workaholics' Anders Holmes has no absolutely no shame as Chelsea's secret-keeping ex-boyfriend. There are a ton of other great cameos, but the best one I won't spoil because it's too good. It's not so much the identity of the comedian that will surprise you, but what he actually does and says that will leave you in a gleeful state of shock.

And to that effect, TOP FIVE is intermittently absolutely hilarious. It goes to some pretty big, broad places with its comedy (the Cedric the Entertainer flashback scenes left me speechless), but there are also great little moments that capture the sort of spot-on observational wit that makes Rock's stand-up so biting and relevant-feeling. Rock has clearly been taking notes while watching the likes of Louie, et al - he captures a very similar sort of vibe here.

That said, the one thing I'll say about TOP FIVE is that it can be very tonally uneven. The switch-ups between more serious drama, more low-key observational humor, and more over-the-top gags do, mostly, work. But at times, there can be some jarring shifts, and some jokes that could have landed in a different context end up falling just a bit flat, because they are ill-timed within the flow of the film. Conversely, some of the more serious, more "adult" moments occasionally feel like just a bit much, because they feel slightly out-of-sync with what we've seen in the majority of the movie's running time.

It's a fine line, and certainly the classic Woody Allen movies that Rock emulates did veer between comedy and tragedy in order to create a unique mixture of both. And to Rock's credit, this really does feel like his Woody Allen film - a wryly witty, laugh-out-loud funny, emotionally involving story that is, one one level, about one man trying to find himself, but is, on another level, about, well, everything. Few comedians are able to put themselves out there in such a raw fashion, but that's exactly what Rock does with TOP FIVE. That makes this one of the best and most affecting comedies of the year. And as a bonus, you'll never look at __________ quite the same way again.

My Grade: A-

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