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Review: Chris Rock’s Top Five Is Fun But Unquestionably Problematic

Rock has serious trouble writing women, but it's still the best new film of the week.

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The tradition of comics writing, directing, and starring in comedies dates back to Chaplin and Keaton; after all, who better to understand their own unique sensibilities than their own selves? We’ve had Woody Allen and Albert Brooks do the same with their films, often playing elevated versions of themselves. On TV, the tradition of the sitcom is essentially built upon comics adapting their routines to a narrative structure,f rom Danny Thomas and The Honeymooners, to Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond, and now critical darlings Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie. Typically, the stronger the comic persona, the better the product – which makes it somewhat odd that it took Chris Rock almost thirty years to do a project which isn’t only as personal as Top Five, but that incorporates his stand-up personality as much as this film does.

Yes, we’ve had versions of the Chris Rock persona in films like Dogma and Nurse Betty, and slightly lower-key examples in the Grown Ups films with Adam Sandler, and I Think I Love My Wife. But with the exception of the very underrated satirical documentary Good Hair, the Chris Rock persona has usually best appeared on TV in both his new/sketch series The Chris Rock Show and the consistently funny, surprisingly affectionate Everybody Hates Chris, a well-written, brilliantly conceived family series in the vein of The Wonder Years, which also introduced audiences to the genius of Terry Crews. So I wasn’t surprised that, when given the freedom to create a personal story, Chris Rock would be more than capable – and Top Five is a very effective, often hilarious adaptation of Rock’s stand-up in the tradition of classic romantic comedies (actually, structurally, the film is closer to screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s – but more on that in a bit).

Unfortunately, as personal as the film is, there’s always a sense of the “stand-up wall” being up for Chris Rock as an actor, which makes his role as Andre Allen work only occasionally. But there are also moments when Rock settles down a bit with other actors, particularly JB Smoove, Ben Vereen, or Rosario Dawson, that he commits to the reality of Andre the character, and the lines based on his stand-up are adjusted to be a bit more conversational. This is especially true of his scenes with Dawson, who really is the best part of the film, as the reporter asked to shadow Rock the day of his movie release – and day before his wedding. Dawson has always been a good actress, but she is wildly unsung for her natural comic abilities. She doesn’t simply hold her own against Rock’s occasionally overpowering nature, but she elevates his performance as well.

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In fact, the two best performances in the movie are from Dawson and the hilarious Gabrielle Union, as Andre’s reality TV fiance – which makes the lack of character development given to the women in the film a bit of a disappointment. As good as Top Five is, and it is often great, the weakness in the development of Union and Dawson’s characters is noticeable, especially when you see very good, funny comedic actresses trying to fill in the gaps. Top Five generally has a big problem with the representation of women, including several stripper and prostitution scenes, which – when not sexually objectifying them – outright derides them. The portrayal of gay men also happens to often be treated as nothing more than something to be mocked, which is not only depressing, but shows a lack of maturity from Rock.

But this has been the year of men dealing with their egos through film, and apparently there isn’t much space for women or gay men in that world. I found I had similar problems Birdman, and with the complete absence of women in Whiplash. When men talk about fame, success, and ego, it is often in very traditional, masculine terms, and Top Five is no exception. The way Rock approaches this narrative, which is why the problem of women’s representation is so noticeable, is that he uses traditional plots from the romantic comedies of the 1930s, like My Man Godfrey and The Philadelphia Story. Its interesting to see Rock take such traditional narrative structures and update them to tell his story – but he does so without the boundary-pushing female characters of films like His Girl Friday.

The movie is at its best when allowing Dawson and Rock to converse in a free-flowing style, share little bits about themselves in natural dialogue for their characters. I’m not surprised that Rock would choose to write and direct his own film after working with Julie Delpy in Two Days in New York, which itself had elements of her collaborations with Richard Linklater, though Top Five shows us a very different side of New York. Rock’s directorial skill, including a real visual eye for how to give a film energy and personality, is a surprise from a first-time director, and makes me excited to see what’s next for him. Cudos are also owed to the masterful original music by Questlove, who (like Mark Mothersbaugh and Trent Reznor) could certainly have a second career as a film composer.

I just wish Rock would have developed other characters as much as he did his own. Whenever a writer/directer casts himself, there can be a tendency to feel the artistic ego creeping in a bit more than the character’s. Rock maintains good balance throughout most of the film, although, for example, he does himself no favors by writing Charlie Rose a speech declaring Andre the greatest living comic. You’ve heard Rose’s monologue in the trailer for Top Five, but even knowing what was coming, the speech does feel a bit egotistical, knowing Rock wrote the movie about a character based on himself. Then again, the character isn’t exactly modest about his life, so even that cringeworthy moment fits with the film’s overall direction.

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Rock’s character’s inflated sense of ego can often times be grating, especially when he chastises others for not being as smart or successful as Andre – not because characters like that don’t exist, but because we don’t see enough characters putting him in his place. One of the issues I had with the narrative was an ongoing bit about Andre’s bitterness towards a critic; instead of coming to the realization that yes, Andre did put out a lot of bad movies, the critic eventually admits to actually thinking Andre was funny, and just wrote bad reviews for the personal publicity. We saw a similar plot element in Birdman between an actor and critic, but in that film Lindsay Duncan’s character stands up for what she writes about Michael Keaton. Why not go a little deeper with the conversation to discuss how Rock really does feel about critics?

And that’s the major problem with Top Five: this very funny, mostly-well-written movie chooses to remain purely surface. His ideas on fame and success are interesting, but they aren’t that deep, and certainly not as deep as Rock gets in interviews. Part of this may be a lack of experience as a writer-director, or his inability to write for a side which isn’t his own. But though the movie doesn’t dig in when it could, that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny, and occasionally even poignant. One thing I didn’t find that funny the vulgar humor, particularly considering most of these jokes were directed at women and gay men; I hated sitting in a crowded theater with people laughing at jokes about how “gross” the idea of two men together is.

I was asked after the film if I thought this would be a major cross-over film for Rock, and ultimately that depends less on critical reception, and more on the audience. The movie has been marketed so well, I think that is absolutely possible, especially being a take on classic romantic comedy; but I also think there will be audiences who, having seen the film’s trailers, won’t be expecting how hard this R-rating really is for nudity and language. There is also the question of Rock choosing to keep in jokes referencing Bill Cosby and cop beatings, which did not get the laughs the I’m sure he intended when he wrote the lines more than a year ago. Regardless, I would recommend checking out the film for yourself – and I look forward to seeing Rock direct another film.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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