Of Top Five, comedian all-star Chris Rock notes that he wanted to make a movie that felt like his stand up routine. Rather than divvy up the goods – this joke for the movies, this one for a live show – as he had done in the past, Rock melts all the goods down, like an aging alchemist performing a do-or-die swan song. He stirs a fair share of heavy drama amongst the renown comedic fare, throwing flashbacks to hitting rock bottom amongst games of jump rope, providing narration to stories that end in semen-stained bedsheets and rectal tampons while illustrating a battle with a wicked case of the alchies.
Back in 2003, Rock released his directorial debut Head of State – in which an inner-city politician (Rock) becomes president, pre-Obama era – to middling reviews. The bombastic, leather-jacketed motherf*cker from the stage had turned his style on its head, offering watery gags over ripe satire in a politically doltish comedy that stank of his Grown Ups‘ compatriots fare. 2007 wasn’t much kinder to his directorial work as I Think I Love My Wife was met with even less enthusiasm. It seemed the world had given up on Chris Rock the actor.
Since then, Rock has been seen lending his visage to the vacation-bait Grown Ups “franchise”, borrowing out his voice for Marty the Lion in the popular-with-kids Madagascar series and offering an unexpectedly potent dramatic turn in Julie Delpy‘s adroit 2 Days in New York. His return to the director’s chair could not have seemed less warranted and yet could not have been more inspired. With Top Five, he’s finally hit his groove.
Debuting at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, Rock’s latest inspired a bidding war for the distributions right for his film, raising eyebrows across the nation as to just what Rock the director, the writer and the actor had in store.
The anticipation was warranted as Top Five arrives a bombastically hilarious, meaningfully introspective assault on the funny bone. Rock plays a shade of himself; a quasi-washed-up comedic actor famed as the title role in the critically flattened Hammy the Bear buddy cop films. Alfie Allen (Rock) has more recently turned his eye to dramatic roles, starring in a serious – and seriously awful – Haitian revolutionary film he keeps referring to as “the Haitian Django.” With a televised Bravo wedding on the uptick and a make-or-break interview with a noted NYT reporter, played by a half-shaved Rosario Dawson, Allen’s losing it.
Featuring a Who’s-Who of comedy cameos (Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, Whoopie Goldberg, Adam Sandler, J.B. Smoove, Romany Malco, Cedric the Entertainer), Rock’s struggle is one of finding his voice. In the comedy cellars where he earned his bread and butter and became a fast rising star, he feels lost. As parallel, Rock hasn’t done a comedy special in half a decade. We’re well beyond the shouting, Chris is bearing his soul.
For a three-time Emmy winner who’s performed more sold out shows than The Beatles, Rock bears emotional welts – the scars of easy money; the busted ego of a sell-out. Here, he’s repenting for his comedic sins. Here, he proves he’s worth sticking around with.
As news of the Sony inner circle and their utter distain for Adam Sandler films makes the unfortunate internet rounds, there couldn’t be a better time for Chris Rock to split off and reassert himself as the proud, angry, shrewd, tender comedian that he can be. Top Five is a must – for Rock’s career and comedy fans both.