Top Five – Chris Rock finding his stride and hitting the mark. (Film Review)
Top Five is a mish-mash of a Linklater-styled, black culture Before Sunrise set in New York and a schmaltzy rom-com playing by all the hack rules. I have yet to see a film where people wander around a city at night, alone or with a sig-oth that fails – it has to be one of the most successful genres going – possibly because only those with a potent grasp of dialogue and something definite to say would ever bother with it. I’m a white middle class Gen-X female, so Chris Rock’s New York is an exciting and alien place to me, his mates lingo something I have to stretch toward, and his aesthetic new, that somehow manages to side step the stereotypes of a culture about which I only know the surface sheen. Apart from literature, I’ve never immersed myself in the American contemporary black scene (I’m like that ‘stuff white people like‘ hack – I love jazz after its been sanctioned by white approval) fearing my own judging faculties. So a Chris Rock wander around a city I know very well and love very much, his eye behind the camera and his clever words popping out of the accomplished mouths of himself and Rosario Dawson contained delights I did not anticipate. Yes its very funny, and a little crude/sappy but when the pair stroll around discussing political dynamics from an African-American perspective, the film lights up.
It’s not just the piercing brilliance of Chris Rocks observations that give Top Five its credibility, but his directorial style that posits the faux TV/rom com style romance of Andre Allen’s star lifestyle against the true connection he makes with journalist Chelsea Brown (Dawson) that contains its own clever commentary. We meet Allen at a point when he wants to change his life, something he has taken concrete steps toward creating, but the result of wandering the streets with Chelsea Brown causes questioning of those choses. The scenes of the life he anticipates are stylized, conservatively shot, beautifully lit. His fiance Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) is a reality TV star exposing her ‘real life’ on television, the result of which is an intrusion of image on their intimacy. In a telling moment of poignancy, Allen visits a black man on the street who makes fun of him and his lifestyle, only to reveal to Chelsea as he walks away disheartened, that the man is his father. It’s a moment that plays back to the Chris Rock standup days, reflections regarding black on black racism, and acts as a reverse attack on the life he’s chosen, arguably a sell out on all that the older generations of American blacks fought for.
Against this, Rock plays the natural scenes of his developing relationship with Dawson with more chaotic camera work, hand-held along with diffuse lighting. In one of the films highlights, the couple go to visit with his old friends, a collection of brilliant talents the likes of Tracy Morgan, Romany Malco and Sherri Shepherd sitting in a modest apartment laughing at Allen and reminding him of when he wasn’t so good. They play a game describing their top five rappers and the camera moves and flits from face to face as a sense of “real” enters the room enhanced by the extraordinary exuberance of the talented group. Chris Rock riffs of the energy in character, filling the cinema with the sunshine each character displays. It’s a scene worlds away from the stylised one he’s created with his fiance, that adheres to the rom com tropes and obeys the laws of social media infused television. In a very funny scene when Allen’s manager (Kevin Hart) tries to talk him into the interview with Brown, he threatens him with the obscurity of Dancing with the Stars. The implications are clear. Andre Allen is entering a graded world where race and gender political issues are blurred behind the grab for the ephemeral power of the magazine cover. It’s a contest he will inevitably lose as all the contestants will.
However, above everything else, including his truly great performance, is the writing that brings the very best of Rock’s remarkable intelligence to the fore. Subtlety is not usually a term used when referencing Chris Rock, but it’s in his delicacy of touch that his true brilliance shines. He’s a fabulous social commentator, and he can write a really great script. If the subtext of the main story is substance over style, he layers the real world connection with Dawson with complex issues like alcoholism, fear of the abyss and gentle mockery of the strident political observations of the post-revolutionary in their examination of the cultures around them. It’s the subtle observations that shine, particularly in two retellings of sexual moments, first Allen’s explorations of a threesome that goes horribly wrong and second in Browns description of an act of sexual revenge she takes out on her lover. It’s the subtle gestures impact on the experience of the moment that Rock details, rather than using real changes in the environment that include the understanding that perception equals truth. Perspective rules in a Chris Rock world, and it’s his ability to tweak and alter our perception that strikes the powerful impact behind his comic gestures. Surely one of the marks of a great comedian is to tell you shocking truths about yourself to your face and have you laugh. Chris Rock excels in this dynamic and he infuses Top Five with such moments.
If anything, Top Five has left us with a great deal of hope. This is the Chris Rock we love from the stand up, and he has successfully brought that reason to love with him into the present. Unlike many of his previous films (which I confess I haven’t watched) which apparently do not pack the same punch, Top Five sees him gaining a stride, a strength that might have been missing before. More films like this please. Lots more. Chris Rock has a long way to go before he’s exhausted our need for this sort of wit.
PS – Top Five has a killer sound track that I didn’t mention.