Savvy, scathing, and scurrilously funny, Top Five is a pyrotechnic pinwheel of a personal comedy, reverberating with savagely prowling wit and sabre-sharp one liners. It’s a crude, clumsy, culturally tone-deaf reminder that as often as comedy fails us, it can be our best hope for resuscitation.
Top Five tells the story of New York City comedian-turned-film star Andre Allen (Chris Rock, Madagascar), who tries to make it as a serious actor when his reality-TV star fiancée (Gabrielle Union, Cadillac Records) talks him into broadcasting their wedding on her show. His unexpected encounter with a journalist (Rosario Dawson, Sin City, Unstoppable) forces him to confront the career – and the past – that he’s left behind.
Screened in the Special Presentations section at TIFF, Top Five is the nearest we’ve come to hearing writer-director-star Chris Rock’s authentic comic voice on film. It’s a career highlight for its creator, as good as Rock’s best standup work. Top Five bridges the gap between his on-screen and stage personas, and Rock is killer: enormously appealing, balancing his patented abrasiveness with a real tenderness, proving that his comic groove is stronger than ever.
Dawson also makes the most of her lay therapist love interest character, transcending caricature and achieving a charming, intriguing mix of vulnerability and poise. Most filmmakers bungle the opportunity to capitalize on Dawson’s talents, other than filling up the screen with her goddess-like beauty. In Rock’s hands, she’s stubborn and endearing and a force to be reckoned with.
Raucous, raunchy, and relentlessly filthy, Top Five is also semi-autobiographical and buoyantly self-sustaining. Like an airdrop of candy over the city, it mixes the sweet with the salty, the naughty with the remarkably kind. Genial, energetic, and sharp-eyed, it feels freshly minted because the man who made it has such a lively mind and fearless style. It’s one of the comedy standouts of 2014.
Top Five strikes one like a revenant from Hollywood’s golden age, when entertainment’s highest function was not to bully or educate or discourage or overwhelm, but to entertain. The best surprises are a hotel room reversal with Cedric the Entertainer, a sexual act of revenge involving a tampon and a liberal dousing of hot sauce, and a behind-bars, croaking rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s anthem “Smile” from a notorious gangsta rapper with a long history of arrests.
It’s disorganized, undisciplined storytelling saddled by a conventional plot and contrived settings – the celebrity cameos, including the “jokester trifecta” of Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jerry Seinfeld, yield as many laughs as a five-car pileup – and it doesn’t go deep with its smirks and scowls, but the wry screenplay is loaded with topicality as it pokes fun at subjects ranging from Tyler Perry to Angry Birds. Skillfully dancing the line between harsh and hopeful, Rock delivers his medicine with a spoonful of honey.
Top Five finds Rock in elevated form. Ragged around the edges and haphazardly hilarious, it’s like dropping in on a party full of funny people, and leaving before the evening fades. Sometimes things change for the better. For better or worse, Top Five is the Chris Rock movie we’ve been waiting for.