If you looked at Chris Rock's filmography, there is no clear indication that he is one of this generation's greatest comedic minds and social commentators. His biggest financial successes have been in the Adam Sandler Grown Up series and as the voice of the Zebra in the Madagascar animated films. For someone in such strong control onstage, it is clear his voice has never translated into cinema. There are a list of comedic greats that have had revolutionary careers as stand-ups, such as George Carlin and Richard Pryor, yet never found roles that truly encapsulated their legendary spirits and stage shows. Sometimes comedians aren't made for films. Other times, a few great comics are lucky enough to make a film that mirrors their true voice. That is what writer/director Chris Rock has done with Top Five.
That quote opens the film, which sheds light on the autobiographical nature of the piece. At times [Top Five](movie:2354036) seems to a cathartic release for Rock. Using it to chronicle a life of celebrity experiences that he has both seen and lived through. However this is not an autobiography. It is more of a guide through Rock's perspectives and his philosophies about stand-up comedy and modern life. Which are both subtly and overtly layered into the movies' New York locations, dialogue, and characters.
In Rock's third directorial effort, he plays famous comedian Andre Allen. Allen's star is fading and he has gone from being an edgy comic to a bad actor in sophomoric movies. He is a recovering alcoholic which has dulled his senses to his career and the people around him, while his life seems to be on auto-pilot. He is engaged to a reality star, played by Gabrielle Union, to keep himself in the limelight and he is clearly not fulfilled. Top Five takes place during a day in New York, when he is promoting his latest film and journalist Chelsea Brown, played by Rosario Dawson, is tasked with interviewing him for the day.
Chris Rock has delivered his most mature work to date. He immediately establishes that he as a distinct directorial voice that is decidedly old-school in its up-close and personal style, however it speaks to a modern audience with its hip-hop cadence and sensibilities. His voice comes through the screen in much the way that Woody Allen once injected his personae into his movies. Whether you are sitting in his family's living room, in a raunchy sexual situation, or having an intimate conversation with Chelsea, you feel like you are right there with the characters.
It's hard to review this movie without mentioning the sheer amount of cameos that Rock was able to wrangle into the film. Rock is able to manipulate the audience's expectations of these public personalities masterfully. So in some instances a personality like Tracy Morgan feels like a real and organic character within the narrative of the film. While we meet up with Jerry Seinfeld (who is playing a version of himself) in a strip club, which goes against our known perceptions of these stars. Rock understands that and uses the public's perceived image of each celebrity to its biggest advantage.
The largest reason for Rock's triumph is because he was able to successfully translate the wit, attitude, and intelligence of his stand-up act into the film. Directors and studios typically hire stand-up acts to "do their routine" in film. A comedian like Kevin Hart comes to mind. Very funny and talented, but really just doing his act in various scenarios. Rock's entire film career has been characterized by that and that is why he had never had major success on screen as an actor. It simply didn't translate for him. The reason that Top Five becomes something special is that he crafts a film that actually IS his stand-up routine, in the form of story and characters. So instead of standing out in the movie, he becomes the fabric of his own routine. Which leads to Rock's best work to date. Hopefully we will be seeing more work from Rock behind the camera. He is a legend who when he picks up the mic, needs to be heard.
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