Sunday, December 14, 2014

Top Five

Top Five is a poison-pen letter to Hollywood, a cranky film that finds its writer/director/star Chris Rock working out his feelings about the limits of celebrity. Rock plays Andre Allen, a successful actor and comedian most famous for playing a bear police officer named “Hammy”. We meet Andre on the day he opens a prestige project about a Haitian slave revolution. There’s a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) trying to find out why Andre isn’t funny anymore and a fiance (Gabrielle Union) who views her wedding to Andre in terms of the ratings it will get for her reality show. Yet what sounds like a rich setup for Rock’s comic imagination is in fact the premise for a story of a man coming back to himself. If only the results weren’t so dreary.

 In the single day that Top Five unfolds Andre is man under siege. Promotional obligations, fans who shout “Hammy” on the street, and a lack of buzz about his new film combine to Andre unreceptive to having a reporter on his tail. Rock’s scenes with Rosario Dawson are the film’s loosest, and I could have done with more of them instead of an interminable flashback involving Cedric the Entertainer as a lackey who gets Andre in trouble with women on the road. (There’s a late revelation about Dawson’s character that strains credibility.) We’re told that alcohol abuse has brought Andre’s career to a crossroads, but that doesn’t track with what we learn about the arc of his career. A sequence involving a visit to childhood friends and family is more promising, but lively characters played by Sherri Shepherd, Leslie Jones, and Tracy Morgan show up for a moment and then disappear. The “Top Five” of the title refers to characters being asked to name their favorite rappers, but since this isn’t a film about music the artists mentioned are just symbols of the authenticity Andre is looking for. The most interesting relationship in the film is the one that’s least explored, the one between Andre and his fiance Erica. Andre credits Erica with helping him get sober, but the Erica we see is more an idea than a person despite Gabrielle Union’s best efforts.

 I would have cared about Top Five more if I’d believed for a moment that even a rejuvenated Andre could function outside the bubble of celebrity. Andre is a man who can get Jerry Seinfeld to come to his strip club bachelor party and even if he goes back to his roots and starts working comedy clubs again he will still be the focus of enormous adulation and attention. The film that Top Five actually reminds me of the most is Birdman. Rock doesn’t have Innaritu’s directorial flourish or surrealist vision, but both films are to a large degree stories of depressed men who artistic desires are enabled by almost everyone they meet. The script puts Andre in an actual cage at one point, and through a bizarre encounter with another celebrity Rock suggests that some who are put in that cage may never get out. I don’t fault Chris Rock’s ambition, but Top Five is an unhappy muddle of a film.

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