Disclaimer: This review may be more recap than critical essay. The following may contain spoilers. Or maybe not. It is quite possible I misremembered key plot points. I have only seen the film once, on a small airplane screen at 35,000 feet, sleep-deprived and under the influence of any number of legal substances. Everyone’s a critic. But inflight entertainment is a safe space where the options are nonthreatening and your expectations low. Skip or screen, the choice is yours.
Top Five (2014)
Director: Chris Rock
Writer: Chris Rock
Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union
Runtime: 102 minutes
My Ambien-aided/inhibited analysis:
My hopes for Top Five were as high as the altitude. First, I was vaguely aware of its favorable reception among critics. Second, I think Chris Rock is a smart, pointed comedian with interesting things to say about race, identity and fame, and the ways in which these forces interact. In the film, which he wrote and directed, he convincingly plays a jaded actor slash comedian, Andre Allen (a version of himself with a little of 30 Rock’s Tracy Jordan thrown in), on a press tour promoting his new movie. After achieving commercial success and notoriety with a blockbuster action trilogy, he finds himself a long way from his humble Harlem beginnings. The entire conceit reminded me of 30 Rock’s brilliant arc highlighting Tracy’s semi-fruitful attempts to EGOT (the multi-hyphenate’s pinnacle of critical success signified by Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony wins), during which he personally finances a trailer for his Thomas Jefferson biopic, stars in a one-man show on Broadway, and continues to alienate his core audience with jokes about eating lobster. Top Five’s more sentimental perspective picks up where 30 Rock’s biting social satire leaves off.
Andre has a complicated relationship with the role that made him a rich and famous superstar. Sure, the private jet is an extravagant convenience. But at what cost, other than the obvious out of pocket expense? He is at risk of losing touch with himself, his audience, his material. Astute observational comedy counts on one’s point of view aligning with that of his fans. It relies on empathy to tap into something true and honest. Andre has a complicated relationship with the work and the process. As of late, influential and inspired work has eluded him. The holy grail – making art that is popular and profound – is just out of reach. He doesn’t want a commercially successful but ultimately hollow role to define him and his career. Are we more the product of our successes or our failures? Plagued with accusations of being out of touch, he is tasked with rehabilitating his image, as well as his career. Andre has a complicated relationship with fans and critics. The project that inspires him falls flat with both. And we’ve yet to mention the complicated relationship with his prospective love interests!
Andre is soon to be married to Gabrielle Union, who just so happens to have her very own complicated relationship with fame – filming a Real Housewives-esque reality show. She is gorgeous and vain and self-involved. She’s the star of her story. Before rendezvousing with Union to celebrate some orchestrated occasion in front of her camera crew, he is promoting his critically-panned passion project – a “hard to watch” biopic about the Haitian revolution. In an effort to foster goodwill with the same publication that recently trashed his performance, he begrudgingly agrees to an interview with Rosario Dawson, a columnist with the paper.
I have nothing but respect for Rosario. She is funny and smart, strong and bold. She more than holds her own here. But more often than not, the roles she plays do not do her justice. She deserves so much more than being the counterpoint to/object of desire for egocentric men (i.e. Chris Rock here and Edward Norton in The 25th Hour). And ironically enough, at this point, with turns in Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the Marvel Netflix Universe might be her best hope.
Over the course of the film and their “interview,” Andre reaches out to family and friends in an attempt to find himself and get back in touch with his roots, comedic and otherwise. There is a lot of walking and talking as the twosome tackle the streets of New York (in a revolutionationary cinematic feat, New York City is a character here!), punctuated by various other personal and professional commitments. Rock notably costarred with Julie Delpy in the excellent Two Days in New York and I cannot help but wonder if he borrowed this contrivance from her and Richard Linklater’s acclaimed Before trilogy. A mechanism to keep the story and characters moving forward when their psyches are less so inclined.
I suspect the film’s title is commenting on the industry’s need to make lists and rankings, to draw comparisons and category assignations. And people do this, as well. We love making lists: “top five food trucks,” “top five life hacks,” “top five movies of the aughts.” So much so that B.J. Novak even created an app for that. Rock exploits this need for a system of ranking as a plot device to provide context and backstory. For Rock’s character, it is an opportunity to look back on his meteoric rise from comedy club anonymity. Amidst a creative drought and desperate to return to his roots, he needs to grapple with where and how his story began.
I won’t spoil the ending. And it’s not because I don’t remember it. I do! But the question the film poses is how does an artist and entertainer stay authentic (current and raw and edgy) when his reality has shifted. Or perhaps was not an accurate reflection in the first place. An existential query that is of much more concern and less easily addressed in two hours than the will they or won’t they of it all.