Rock is one of the funniest people alive.
But there are a lot of funny people in the world. Hell, there are a lot of funny people in Top Five, the new movie Rock wrote, directed, and stars in. People like Kevin Hart, Sherri Shepherd, J.B. Smoove, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharoah, and Tracy Morgan, who appear in various roles, while others turn up as themselves in cameo appearances I won’t spoil.
Rock’s ability to generate laughs has never been in question. But his particular gifts are felt in the incisive intelligence with which he does so, how he forges tough truths into razor-edged, bracingly intelligent jokes like no other. The past two weeks have found Rock dropping brilliantly honed observations like perfectly lobbed grenades by way of the press he’s been doing for the film. He explained to New York that comedy is “the only thing that smacks Hollywood out of its inherent racism, sexism, anti-Semitism,” forcing the industry to hire Roseanne Barrs on the basis of talent rather than the “thin blonde girls” to which it defaults.
He noted to Rolling Stone that he’d “love to work with Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater. But they don’t really do those movies with black people that much.” He wrote a terrific essay on race and the film industry in The Hollywood Reporter. He can’t stop providing reminders of how good he can be in his undiluted form, on stage, or in print.
This is Rock’s version of “arty.”
w YorThat’s how Rock describes his tastes to Rolling Stone, and while Top Five is packed with famous faces in various roles as well as in celebrity cameos, it feels intimate and indie — it was made independently and only picked up by Paramount after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. That’s nothing new coming from a guy who remade Chloe in the Afternoon, but Top Five doesn’t feel like it’s trying to translate another filmmaker’s ideas. It’s Rock’s Before Sunset, or his Stardust Memories, focusing on the pleasures of chemistry and dialogue as well as an artist confronting his own uncertainties. It’s also got some totally outrageous bits of business involving Cedric the Entertainer and group sex gone wrong as well as Anders Holm and vengeance via tampon.
Andre’s claim to fame is a string of hugely popular Hammy the Bear movies, in which he plays an ursine detective whose catchphrase is “It’s Hammy time!” He plays the leader of a Haitian slave rebellion in a biopic called Uprize, the project that’s supposed to legitimize him, but that no one seems to have interest in, and that the movie never pretends is anything but awful. Top Five is set over the course of a day where Andre reluctantly agrees to let a New York Times reporter named Chelsea Brown (Dawson) interview and shadow him on opening day. Chelsea turns out to be sexy and sharp as a tack — when he turns down her opening softball question and demands she skip right to the good stuff, she equanimously asks, “How come you aren’t funny anymore?” They bounce off each other as they circle the city, dueling, flirting, and fighting in deeply enjoyable ways.
It’s about being black, and about being famous.
And about being black and famous, an experience that Top Five renders in vivid detail, especially in terms of Andre’s particular experience growing up poor in New York. A warmly uproarious sequence in which he goes back to his childhood home to visit his old friends serves as a platform for the talented comedians who play them to riff, but it also provides a parallel to a later one in which Andre visits with fellow celebrities in a club. He’s got one foot in each world, but maintaining a balance is tricky, and he’s very aware that plenty of people are prepared for — and maybe even expect — him to fall flat on his face rather than achieve something new. He and his friends joke about Tupac and what he might have achieved, and Andre notes that he’d like to think he’d become a senator, but just as likely he’d be playing “the bad, dark-skinned boyfriend in a Tyler Perry movie.”
Andre has no idea where he’s going — he’s not following in anyone’s footsteps. He’s trying to blaze a trail, yearning for something uncertain, and if Top Five is romantic about how he gets back in touch with his roots, it’s only in a way that reflects all comedy nerds. Top Five feels like it’s doing the same thing, carving out a tradition for itself that doesn’t exist, one that contains a little Woody Allen and a touch of Leslie Jones yelling to “keep it 100,” and a lot of Chris Rock.