Nutshell: I give Top Five an A. Love “backstage” stories? Funny stuff? Introspection? You’ll love this. Rock shines, and delivers his best performance yet. Also, DMX sings Nat Cole. Hello, Spotify?
A man who was once the pinnacle of his art tries to change up his game in order to make a name for himself. It’s one of the best movies this year and has already generated a whole lot of buzz. No, today I’m not talking about Birdman. I’m talking about Top Five, a film that has the guts to look at fame, celebrity culture, addiction, how friends help and hinder you, human sexuality, and what it must be like to try to change who you are to others in order to reflect who you are inside. It’s a whole lot to dump on an audience, and yet Chris Rock not only manages, he makes it an absolute hoot. This is the laugh-out-loud funny, y’all.
Andre Allen is a self-made man. Once a stand-up comic, he became A-list famous thanks to a string of comedies where he played a bear that fights crime. (No really. And stay with me here.) But after three films, “Hammy the Bear” wasn’t enough for Andre, and so the spiral downward began. After getting busted, getting clean, and re-starting his life, he’s now engaged to
Kim Kardashian a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) and making the PR circuit for his “ac-tor” dramatic debut as a Haitian slave revolt leader in “Uprize!” When the New York Times wants to interview him, he’s wary — they’ve panned his work relentlessly for years — but journalist Chelsea Brown wins him over. What happens next is a whirlwind day of revelations, shocks, re-starts and “rigorous honesty” that changes them both. If that sounds deep, it is. But Rock channels Woody Allen, Spike Lee and Richard Linklater, delivering a film that plays like a living version of his brilliant stand-up work. At times gasping-for-air hilarious and brutally real, Top Five is a film that may surprise a lot of folks, but it’s the top-notch film Rock fans knew he had in him.
Let me backtrack a bit. Perhaps you don’t think my referencing Allen, Lee and Linklater works here. Oh, but it does. Top Five takes several different turns at storytelling, and this pastiche blends together nicely. Five feels like a little of Allen’s love of NYC and neurosis (think Annie Hall), a smattering of Lee’s raw power when delivering messages too real for many folks to stomach (Do the Right Thing), and Linklater’s ability to have two people do nothing but wander around a city for many a scene and have it all be absolutely captivating (Before Sunrise). Woven into the narrative is Andre’s conversation with his coterie of friends; “who are your Top Five favorite rap artists”? It’s a simple question, but one that gets ‘em all going in every direction, showing Chelsea who Andre really is, and reminding Andre of what’s important to him.
Gabrielle Union, as the fame-obsessed “star” Erica Long, seems to epitomize everything that’s wrong with stardom for stardom’s sake. She does whatever the producers of her reality show ask of her, she contorts her relationship into television-friendly bites, she swaps the wedding ring she originally picked out for one with more on-screen “presence”. Yet, there are scenes in Top Five that allow Union to show a side of Erica that is more real than any reality show personality would care to show to the public. That’s where she truly shines, and shows viewers she’s in on the plastic veneer, that she’s doing more than just a caricature.
As Top Five progresses, there are tons of cameo and supporting roles that help illustrate the lives of Andre and Chelsea. And Rock slipped in more than a few ringers; Ben Vereen, Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, J.B. Smoove and Leslie Jones all get time to strut their stuff. The chemistry between the group of friends is believable, the situations Andre gets into with others are hilarious because the’re thisclose to truth, and the pauses in laughs when the tale digs into tough issues are just weighty enough without being off-putting. Stacking the deck by having great comedic talents deliver hard hitting themes doesn’t hurt. For example, there’s Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg and Jerry Seinfeld discussing relationships and fame — along with the ever-present thoughts of pre-nups and staying true to your beloved — while they’re at a strip club. C’mon; where else can you go to see Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg and Jerry Seinfeld make it rain in a strip club? It’s a hilarious scene, and the depth of the discourse hits a moment or two later. Rock’s Top Five is that scene in a nutshell; laughs that make the difficult issues easy to grasp, and easy to understand.
Oh, and here’s my Top Five:
- Grandmaster Flash/Sugarhill Gang (tie. And yes I can.)
- Kanye West (love him or hate him, you can’t deny the brilliance.)
- Run DMC (Not just because of Christmas in Hollis, but that doesn’t hurt.)
- Beastie Boys (Because of their own talent, and their wall-busting.)
- Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes (Yes, TLC wasn’t Rap. But she was. And she was amazing.)
Honorable mentions to Eminem, Lauren Hill, Common and of course Biggie and 2Pac. Peace.