For all of the surrealism and cinematic wizardry to be found in this year’s “Birdman”, the film was above all the story of a man grappling with fame and reality. He put on a play to be taken seriously while battling the demons of his past life as a superhero star as well as his press and his peers all out to destroy him.
Chris Rock’s “Top Five” is the more grounded version of this struggle, a less symbolic and more searing industry critique of celebrity, race dynamics and the press in a modern world. And while Michael Keaton has been stealing headlines for “Birdman’s” narrative similarities, Rock’s story is the truly meta portrait, a film he wrote, directed and starred in standing in for his own stand-up routine and opinions.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a rock star comedian turned movie star, a career trajectory already not unlike Rock’s own, in which Andre’s claim to fame were a franchise of the ludicrous Hammy the Bear movies. Though he was just a man in a bear costume shooting a machine gun, Andre became an A-lister overnight. Years later, he’s made a new movie called “Uprize”, in which he plays a slave who led a rebellion and killed hundreds of white jailers.
Publicity for the unfortunately titled “Uprize” is being drowned out by his impending marriage to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), and this new film is so unfunny and self-important that in an attempt to get any publicity for it, Allen agrees to a profile with the New York Times’ Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who asks him straight out why he isn’t funny anymore. Over the course of a day, the two verbally spar as Andre shows Chelsea around his old haunts, his family and his adventures appearing on radio shows and at press junkets.
What immediately works in “Top Five’s” favor is the chemistry between Rock and Dawson. The two are constantly challenging and one-upping the other with another cultural observation or political statement, and it’s all cynical, profane dialogue that crackles with wit and thought-provoking creativity befitting one of Rock’s stand-up routines. They riff about his conspiracy theory that “Planet of the Apes” caused the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination and her complications with a boyfriend who may not be straight, all while the camera walks backwards as though they were characters in one of Richard Linklater’s “Before” movies.
And yet the walking and talking isn’t as fresh or as alive as when “Top Five” finally starts to get real. Rock takes Andre back to the projects to visit his family, and the film acts as a fly on the wall with just about the entire African American cast of “Saturday Night Live” making cameos as his family. He visits Sirius XM to record some on-air promos and interviews for his movie, and the press continue to dig a hypocritical hole for themselves by asking the same tired questions about his marriage and his past hits.
Not only does “Top Five” have a spark in these moments, they show the surprising dramatic and romantic depth of Dawson’s character and both of their former dependencies on alcohol. Rock squeezes these nuanced moments of melodrama into the same breath as some of the most vulgar, gross out comedy of the year, not all of which hits the same high mark of the rest of the film. And yet if you don’t have a soft-spot for watching Jerry Seinfeld “make it rain” or a hilarious cameo from rapper DMX, then you’re likely the audience for either Andre’s strictly serious “Uprize” or one of the Tyler Perry movies Rock lampoons.
In DMX’s cameo, he explains that he has “so much more to offer.” Rock’s whole career has found him pigeonholed in one way or another, and only now has he made a film, whether of his own volition or due to the beast that is Hollywood, in which he’s broken out of all his boxes and made the movie he wants. He’s more than just a comic, an actor, a director, or a black guy. He’s all of the above, and he’s finally found his niche.