Chris Rock has always been a clever comedian, but one should never doubt his flair for a bit of dramatic acting. For those who remember him as Pookie from the classic New Jack City, Rock has always been able to bring depth to his characters, masked by his always animated persona. It’s these acting chops which always manage to cut through expectations of Chris as a non-serious actor, placing him amongst the list of great comedians who excel when they take on something that requires a bit more weight.
In a similar vein to Adam Sandler’s Funny People, Top Five is shot, scripted, and acted in a way that brings things much closer to reality; each of these characters (with the exception of Cedric the Entertainer) pulls back on any excessive personality and comes across as very ‘real’. It’s this realness which allows mostly all characters to be fleshed out to the point where you come to care about them, especially Rock’s character, the semi-biographical Andre Allen. No one is there to just set up the next joke in the film (even Cedric the Entertainer); they’re all here – including some eye-popping guest cameos – to help hold the story together and Allen the variety he craves.
Allen, much like Rock, has suffered a bit too much pigeonholing stemming from his ‘Hammy the Bear’ character, leading to the type of expectations any actor would want to subvert. Andre Allen wants to be taken seriously; he wants to star in films with a message (like the fictional and controversial “Uprize!”), and he wants people to really understand him as a person. Are images of Birdman flashing around your head yet?
An ambitious journalist (Chelsea Brown, portrayed by Rosario Dawson) walks into Andre’s life for an in-depth interview, hiding the fact that she has been trashing his films for years under a male alias. The on-screen chemistry between Rock and Dawson is a significantly strong point of this movie, progressively bringing out more and more of each character as the film goes on.
Chelsea is just what is needed to poke and prod at Rock’s character (and Rock himself), adding to the list of characters the movie uses to tear at different aspects of the comedy legend’s career and personality. Dialogue given to his on-screen dad seems like Chris acknowledging his own failures, banter between his on-screen siblings let’s you explore Chris Rock’s childhood and the common bonding conversation many hip hop fans engage in when they argue over their ‘Top Five (dead or alive)’ [Scarface is a legend, but higher than Biggie? Really Chris?].
There are quite a few guest cameos sprinkled throughout the movie that tug the film away with exploring Chris’ psyche and introduce some mindless, memorable fun. Most effective of these are spots from hip hop legend DMX and everything legend Jerry Seinfeld. The former plays on X’s real-life legal woes, and seems to be inspired by this amazing video. Seinfeld on the other hand, takes the comedian completely out of any context we’d expect to see him, and has him ‘making it rain’ in a strip club and arguing with security in typical Seinfeld fashion.
Top Five is quite possibly Chris Rock’s finest film to date; entertaining, genuinely funny, heartfelt, and very well balanced; a reminder of one of the sharpest, and wittiest comedians of our time.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running time: 102 minutes
Top Five is out in Australian cinemas as of today, Thursday 12th March