It has been a good season for movies by and starring black people. Despite its shoestring budget and inexperienced director, Dear White People was one of the most incisive comedies I've seen in a while. Beyond the Lights was also surprisingly good, sidestepping a lot of the pitfalls a straight-up romance can tend to tumble into. Now Chris Rock, still one of the funniest comedians working today, has released his third film, one that he directed, wrote, and starred in. And although his baser sense of humor is still fully on display here, it's his most mature movie yet, one that poses a multitude questions about Hollywood, fame, and success. Sometimes Rock's reach can overextend his grasp, but it's better to see that kind of ambition falter slightly than for him to continue starring in the Madagascar movies.
Taking place over the course of a single day, the film concerns Andre Allen (Rock), a comedian who has abandoned stand-up and the idiotic movie series that made him famous in order to pursue a career as a serious actor. That series is one in which he plays Hammy, a talking bear that works with the police, has an itchy trigger finger, and the catchphrase, "It's Hammy time!" The film is set on the day of the debut of his new film, Uprize, which is about the bloody, real-life Haitian slave rebellion in which hundreds of thousands of white people died at the hands of a small group of black people. His day is further complicated by his impending marriage to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), a reality TV star who is insisting that their wedding be televised. There is also Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a down-to-earth journalist who wants to interview Allen for the New York Times, a publication with which Allen has a shaky relationship due to its main critic's penchant for lambasting his work.
There is also a rogue's gallery of practically every working black actor, all of whom essentially play a version of themselves, regardless of whether they're actually playing themselves. They all show up for a brief joke or two before disappearing. This list includes Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, D.B. Smoove, Romany Malco, Cedric the Entertainer, Sherri Shepard, Jay Pharaoh, Hassan Johnson, and Leslie Jones. There are a couple more celebrity cameos that I won't spoil here, because they're all pretty hilarious.
At the heart of the film is Rock himself, who in real life is a wonderfully outspoken critic of Hollywood and the perpetual marginalization of non-white people in the industry, actors or not. He channels this bemused outrage through his onscreen character, particularly through conversations that he has with Chelsea, which make up the meat of the movie. This film felt reminiscent of Richard Linklater's Before trilogy, as the majority of it is simply following Rock and Dawson around as they talk, talk, talk about pretty much everything. That dialogue is the best part of the film, because it is sharp, witty, and insightful. Rock is clearly a thinking comedian, and this movie has about as much on its mind as it can handle. The supporting cast mainly exists as a source of variety in the film, as they all contribute to the raucously entertaining yet thought-provoking conversations that make up the film.
The presence of Union's character, Erica--never an inherently bad thing, mind you--threatens to drag down the entire film. Erica is a plot device, in existence merely to provide dramatic tension and momentum to the narrative, otherwise it would just be Rock and Dawson wandering around aimlessly all day. But the problem is that aimless wandering can be extremely entertaining, given a good enough script (see the trilogy alluded to above). It is an overly familiar, thankless role that women have to play all to often. Union is more or less incapable of being anything less than entertaining, but all she does is nag Rock throughout the entire runtime. She is written to be a ball-and-chain with sexy outfits. Furthermore, although Rock and Dawson have terrific chemistry together, their inevitable romance nevertheless feels forced, putting the film at odds with itself. It is, after all, a critique about cliché and selling out. A movie that is this funny and well-written doesn't need to resort to snooze-worthy plot turns like these.
Another issue is that it can feel as though Rock has a bit too much swirling around in his head, and Top Five is his attempt to purge it all at the same time. Like Birdman earlier this year, this film has a problem with critics, perhaps giving them a bit more credence than they are afforded by the everyday reader. Allen's Hammy series has been both a blessing and a curse to him, because they are the basis of his luxurious lifestyle and also his ultimate shame. Despite the popularity of the series (the first one apparently grossed $600 million), Allen knows that they're terrible movies, but somehow still takes offense when people write negative things about them. If there was a statement about criticism to be made there, it gets lost in the shuffle.
I had high expectations for Top Five, probably a bit too high. The talent is certainly there and firing on all cylinders, for the most part. As a filmmaker, Rock is becoming more daring and interesting as he moves towards middle age, but he still quite hasn't broken out of the romantic comedy mold quite yet. Maybe in his next movie, he'll do it all in one take, Bela Tarr style.