I’ve never cared much for the humour of Chris Rock. He’s usually crass, frenetic, and rolls out his jokes with pitches so high and speeds so blistering the audience laughs more at his verbal diarrhoea than at what he’s actually saying. I remember him in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), a movie in which he played a character so helplessly inept and irritating the only thing that saved him was the sheer toxic presence of Joe Pesci. They made the comedic duo equivalent of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees at a bar-mitzvah. There’s a party for that sort of thing, I’m sure. I just missed the invite.
So it’s a professionally clever move, then, for Rock to pair himself with Rosario Dawson in Top Five, a movie about, above many other things, the tragic ironies of life. This is a movie that tells me Rock’s persona on stage, and indeed on camera, is a put-on. A show in itself. That he’s not really the man we see, but an introspective existentialist, who values life, love, and humour, and hides behind a wall of different faces as he tries to discover himself. It is a mature, thoughtful fictional autobiography, written not from, but with the heart.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a former stand-up comedian who’s had a successful run in Hollywood playing a cop dressed as a bear named Hammy. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. He is actually a bear, and there is a clip of him standing on a car’s bonnet spraying bullets at the enemy.
He’s had enough of comedy. He wants to be taken seriously. In a bold, unprecedented move, he stars in a movie called “Uprize”, about Haitian slaves starting a revolution and slaughtering over 2,000 white men. In a way, it’s also a comedy. He arrives in New York City to promote it.
Assigned to cover his story is a journalist named Chelsea (Dawson), who works for The New York Times and is a colleague of one James Nielson, Andre’s most hated, scathing critic. What unfolds here is a rare treat, as Chelsea and Andre stroll around the city like a reel out of Annie Hall (1977) and discuss topics ranging from Mexican lesbian presidents to Andre’s engagement to a reality TV star, Erica (Gabrielle Union), who’s so obsessed with this marriage she has a camera crew follow her around as she prepares the ceremony.
What underlines the story, and every decision Andre makes, is the question of whether he really wants to marry this woman. Erica is beautiful, smart, eloquent. But marrying her just seems like the kind of thing his screen persona (maybe Hammy) would do. Does he really love her? Does she love him?
Chelsea is quick on the uptake. She senses immediately that Andre’s hesitating, but because she works with James Nielson, he finds it difficult to trust her, and spends much of their banter circumventing the serious questions, taking her instead to his relatives’ apartment, talking about his time in Houston where Cedric The Entertainer steals all the scenes, including the hookers.
Andre used to be an alcoholic, went through rehab, and has been clean for a while now. He finds out that Chelsea, too, has been through rehab, for different reasons, and has played the dating field so efficiently all that’s left are the Eskimo. She’s got a young daughter at home, and a mother who makes a poor babysitter. Her current boyfriend Brad (Anders Holm) has been avoiding her texts and calls; when they accidentally bump into each other at a hotel, well, let’s just say she should have seen this coming.
The recipe written by Rock here indicates that Andre and Chelsea will realise their lives are hollow and incomplete, and that they will find solace in each other, and love. But the method is interesting. Top Five is cited as being a comedy, but I think it’s more a romance movie with comedic elements. It toys with the tension between these two successful, attractive people, and takes them on a detour around love’s playground. The movies do an interesting thing with romantic characters: They make it clear to the audience that the two lovers we see on the screen should no doubt end up together, but hide this fact from the people who matter the most — the lovers. Instead, they grump and moan through the plot as if knowing love has no merit except failure. When they finally unite in passion at the end, it’s as if a miracle has dawned.
I will not say if Andre and Chelsea end up together. I’d be ruining the charm of this movie. What’s most precious about it is their journey, and the personal baggages lugged around by them. It’s always a breath of fresh air to be in the company of characters we care about, who know what they’re doing, and have minds of their own. I don’t know how much of Top Five is fact, based on Rock’s own experiences, and how much is fib created for dramatic purposes, but the result is one of the best movies to come from the mind of a stand-up comedian.
Best Moment | Andre meeting his dad. I wasn’t expecting such a scene to have so much heart-wrenching poignancy.
Worst Moment | Chelsea’s daughter hijacking Andre’s cell phone and immediately downloading “Angry Birds”. What’s up with that?