You have to marvel at Top Five, the third and best feature directed by Chris Rock, because it occupies what good ol’ Dave Matthews might call The Space Between (right now you’re saying this motherf*cker just referenced Dave Matthews in a review of a Chris Rock movie — you’re damn right). There’s the in-betweenness of the genre itself, which like main character Andre Allen keeps toggling from comedy to drama and back again. Even within the more likely genre of the two — comedy, for those of you who’ve never heard of this “Chris Rock” fellow — there’s the sense that the movie is stuck in the middle between the comedy we expected and the comedy we didn’t. Rock, after all, made his directorial debut with Head of State, and it’s pretty clear that with Top Five he’s partly digging stuff like that instead of just doing it all over again.
Mostly, though, the tightrope walking in Top Five occurs in the dialogue. Andre’s a has-been comedian, known to the masses for playing Hammy the Bear in three Hammy movies, and as of now he’s trying to break into more serious roles (like the leader of the Haitian Revolution in his new movie Uprize). He’s also trying to stave off his alcoholism, and Top Five provides a nice link between Andre’s sobriety and his ability to be funny. So the dialogue reflects this in the obvious way, in the events of the script and the plot points and such, but it also reflects this in the way it seems by turns well thought-out and yet totally spontaneous.
We might equate the former (well-written dialogue) with drama and the latter (ad-libbed riffing) with comedy, and still Top Five resists fulfilling that expectation, too. Several long tracking shots of Rock’s Andre and Rosario Dawson’s tabloid reporter Chelsea walking through New York are scripted and hilarious, and some of the more serious conversations between the two are injected with a feel of spontaneity and off-the-cuff…ness. That’s not to say that the funniest scenes don’t have that naturalness as well, of course, because most of them do. Sitting around talking about top five rappers can be hysterical if you have the right people doing the talking, and Top Five has the right people.
There’s a scene in which Chelsea recounts the gross sexual preferences of her suddenly-ex-boyfriend Brad, primarily one venture involving a certain orifice (his) and a finger (hers). They do it in bed, on the floor, in the bathroom. The comfort (his) and extreme discomfort (hers) are more or less proportional. He’s so commandeering in this particular arena that Chelsea gets fed up enough to exact some revenge — she utilizes the little bottle of Tabasco sauce from her purse in place of the aforementioned finger. Brad freaks.
If that scene was in Head of State or any other Chris Rock movie it’d be another forgettable randy sex gag. In Top Five it’s still not anything much more than that, but at least it’s surprising. And Rock relishes in that more than anything: surprising people, both the audience and the characters in the film. As with most of Rock’s art the “serious” or “dramatic” element of Top Five is concerned with being a black man in America, but here that question of identity is consistently more deeply considered than it usually is. Andre tries to make the time-tested point about a black man trying to hail a cab in New York, and all the ardor and passion you’d expect from Rock is there when he throws up his arm and yells at the taxi to make his point…but then the cab screeches to halt.Top Five explicitly swats at clichés like that, but then at the same time Andre arrives in a suit at the airport and scans the chauffeurs to find his name, and he finds this:
So you might say that beautiful in-betweenness extends even to the central theme of Top Five. But even if you’re less concerned with any of that and more concerned with throwing on a background movie, Rock’s latest is just plain hilarious. His exploration of the true and sinister significance of Planet of the Apes is as gleefully overwrought as his contemplation of what Tupac Shakur would be doing if he was still alive (“I would hope he’s a senator by now, but who knows? He might be in a Tyler Perry movie”); the priceless look on his face when he spits out his special brand of wisdom (“Even Jesus didn’t tell his followers everything”) drives the film as much as any of the aforementioned structural brilliance. Rock and Co. have just announced plans for a sequel to Top Five with many of the same characters, and one can only hope the same liveliness of this original is brought to the continuation. They don’t come much livelier.