It’s often said that comedy is the hardest thing for a performer, and it must be hard to be a comedian in the celebrity bubble of Hollywood. Sure, there’s the potential for big franchise paychecks and the adoration of countless fans, but with them comes the eroded sense of self that drives so many to want to be taken seriously—or at least pause to take stock of their identity.
By chance—or mostly, it seems, by design—Chris Rock has taken the road less traveled. Despite being heir apparent to Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, he’s never quite taken the buddy cop movie, the easy-money family comedy, or the obvious Hollywood payday. (Let’s forget those small parts in Grown Ups and Madagascar, shall we?) American movies really haven’t known what do to with Rock’s particular stylings, so he’s taken it upon himself to do things his way. Now, at an age where the careers of his standup heroes and peers—Murphy and, say, Jim Carrey—ossified into formulaic family fare, Rock’s gone and written, performed in and directed the best all-around use of his talent on film yet.
In Top Five, his third film behind the lens, Rock imagines what his career might have been had he taken that comedy franchise route—and wrestles exuberantly with all the attendant paradoxes of self. His Andre Allen—just the tip of the Woody parallels—is a beloved movie clown who’s both entertained and made millions via the broad antics of the Hammy the Bear series, but now yearns to be respected as an actor—to the extent that he’s headlining the hilariously earnest Haitian revolt drama Uprize! (which more closely resembles ZAZ’s take on a Steve McQueen movie).
The difficulty in distancing oneself from the “early, funny ones” has troubled every would-be dramatic comedian, of course, from Allen in Stardust Memories to Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder and Adam Sandler in Funny People. Yet rather than indulge in egotistic celebrity misery, Rock uses the soul-searching in Top Five to rediscover what it is that thrills him to be alive: the electricity of raw comedy.
Courting the respectability of a career profile, Andre agrees to spend time—a lot of time, preposterously—with a New York Times journalist, played with slippery sincerity by Rosario Dawson. As they walk and talk into the Manhattan night, both flash back to defining life moments, riff on fame, roots, and identity, and get dangerously close—all while he juggles the pressure of an impending media circus marriage to his reality TV-star fiancée (Gabrielle Union).
It’s a heady mixture that could collapse in the wrong hands, but Rock, despite pulling triple duty, largely succeeds in balancing the movie’s multiple elements. It’s been noted that the film approaches the rhythm of Richard Linklater’s Before series, but a more apt comparison might be the schizoid comedies directed by their star, Julie Delpy—the second of which, 2 Days in New York, featured Rock himself.
Similarly, Top Five ebbs and flows between rambunctious comedy and moments of dramatic pause. It’s the kind of movie in which Rock gets to wax wittily on being black and famous and set up gloriously filthy scenarios involving geysers of bodily fluid. At its best, the high and low brow happily coexist; the film’s emotional watershed moment, set in a downtown comedy club, functions wonderfully in this manner.
That Rock might fashion his film after Linklater, Delpy, or Allen should come as little surprise. This is, after all, a guy whose previous directing effort was a remake of an Éric Rohmer film, and Top Five is likewise sprinkled with cinema-literate allusions that reveal Rock to be a keen student of the form. There are nods to Chaplin (culminating in the film’s bizarro cameo highlight), Spike Lee. and (just maybe) Holy Motors. The cinematography (by Lars von Trier’s DP Manuel Albert Caro, no less) channels that special brand of visual character that all the great New York pictures possess.
Most importantly—lest it go unmentioned—Top Five is genuinely hilarious. A running nightmare of Rock’s character in the film is that he’s just not funny anymore, and on that count the writer-director need not be concerned. Like the recurrent “top five rappers” pop quiz of the title, the movie functions as a surprisingly resonant litmus test of its creator—and, if anything, Rock proves here that his comic groove is stronger than ever.
Originally published at Movie Mezzanine.