Director: Chris Rock
Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones
Watch Top Five online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Stand-up comedy is a more confessional form of entertainment than most. That’s why so many of its stars have chosen to add another layer to their stage personas by creating fictionalised versions of themselves for TV and film. Garry Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C. K. are just a few of the huge names who’ve adapted their lives on scren, and in Top Five, Chris Rock follows suit with his own self-reflexive project.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a global superstar and former stand-up comic who is desperate to make a more respectable name for himself beyond the comedy franchise dregs of Hammy the Bear, the gun-toting bear/cop he plays (catchphrase: “It’s Hammy time”). He’s also a recovering alcoholic engaged to a reality TV star, so the similarities to Rock’s personal life are only surface-deep, mostly existing to allow his legendary stand-up skills to take centre stage.
Foregrounding Rock’s natural oratory ability is a mixed blessing for Top Five. It lets his charisma shine through, and provides most of the film’s laughs, but it also reveals how limited he is as an actor. His voice rarely resembles anything other than a foghorn, even in the film’s more intimate moments, and his script doesn’t give Rock much to work with in the first act. Andre is arrogant, brash, and downright rude in the face of journalist Chelsea Brown’s (Dawson) questions; understandable, considering he’s trying to salvage Uprize, his new (and terrible) slave drama, but not the most sympathetic way in to his character, especially when few of the jokes land.
Things improve immeasurably the second Andre, and Rock, relax. Less confrontational and more laidback, Andre begins to enjoy himself, and the laughs follow. An extended and heavily improvised sequence with Andre’s family (Morgan, Jones) is a particular highlight, with crackling chemistry between the cast. It feels like you’re just hanging out with a bunch of hilarious friends, and the film is all the better for it.
If Rock is Top Five’s funny loudmouth, then Rosario Dawson is its heart, showing just what she can do when given a character more complex than the Marvel supporting role she’s become known for. She and Rock both play alcoholics struggling with temptations, but she makes a lot more of the situation, bringing a tough but emotional edge. Rock’s script never gets mawkish when dealing with these issues, but looks to handle them with humour and a pragmatic touch.
Rock’s direction is great, taking a simple, Woody Allen-esque approach to Andre and Chelsea’s conversations. Walking around the streets of New York, his camera tracks back in long takes, focused only on their words, but Rock is more than willing to switch things up as necessary. He gives more energy to the rest of the film, spiking quicker cuts into conversations, and the contrast works perfectly.
The first few scenes may drag, and a few jokes outstay their welcome, but once it hits its stride, Top Five is great company for a sideways look at comedy superstardom. Rock’s perspective on black fame is rare and incisive, and it’s hard to resist when he and his brilliant cast turn on the charm. His writing fits a little awkwardly into this semi-dramatic form, but whenever he allows himself to let loose and just have fun, Top Five is irresistible.
Top Five is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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