Reviewed by Alan L. Chrisman
Over New Years, I saw Chris Rock’s new film, Top Five. Some critics have called it a black Woody Allen film and have compared it to Allen’s classic film, Annie Hall, from 1977. If Woody Allen had been black instead of white and Jewish, and was making a statement about our 2014/15 world, he might have made a similar film such as this one. Like Allen’s, it also uses the streets of New York City as it’s backdrop. But it’s both a romantic-comedy and a satire of our current media and celebrity–obsessed world.
It’s the story of a former stand-up comedian and comic actor, Andre Allen, played by Chris Rock, who wants to make more serious social statements in his work (he has become famous and successful dressed as “Hammy the Bear” in a series of mindless popular movies). Andre has just made a political film about the Haitian Revolution, but his fans and the media are more interested in his light comedies. On top of this, he’s also about to marry a reality-TV star, Erica (Gabrielle Union), which his managers say will be good for his career.
But in order to publicize his serious film, he meets beautiful New York Times reporter, Chelsea Brown, (Rosario Dawson) and gradually all his and his handler’s plans begin to fall apart, at this turning point in his career and life. Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s films again (Chris Rock not only acts in but also wrote and directed Top Five), there are long shots of the two walking around New York having interesting conversations, as they are gradually attracted to each other. But like Allen, he doesn’t make relationships seem easy. It’s to Rock’s credit that he has also made both main characters flawed as well; they both have some hidden baggage that has to be confronted if their romance is to continue.
Top Five though could only have been made by a cutting-edge and black comic like Chris Rock. For that’s where the similarities with white comedians and films ends. Whereas, Woody Allen’s and Jerry Seinfeld’s cerebral and upper and middle–class character comedies and Adam Sandler’s frat –boy humor (both Seinfeld and Sandler make cameo appearances) examine sex and white guilt and hang-ups, Rock’s probes his own black working-class roots. He takes on directly black culture and stereotypes, even to question their own hang-ups and icons. He has roles played by several black entertainers from former fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus Tracy Morgan , Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, to Whoopi Goldberg. In fact, Rock pulls no punches even when satirizing his own community- which took a lot of bravery. He even dares to comment on Oprah’s “noble” black stereotype (Cosby has criticized Rock before for using the word “nigger” extensively, but we now know Cosby’s own reality)) and Tyler Perry’s films (in one scene, people are lining up to see Perry’s populist films, but ignoring Rock’s serious Haitian Revolution one).
Also there are several uncompromising sex scenes and language which, frankly, some white audiences won’t probably appreciate or understand. This is not a film with politically-correct language and politically-correct attitudes, which is rare for liberal Hollywood. This film might be an indication that Rock could well be the inheritor of Richard Pryor’s take-no-prisoners mantle. But it only makes Top Five more authentic. Instead of making it just a romantic-comedy (which it is partly), he has made it real and better in the process.
There’s no doubt, that like Woody Allen’s films, it’s also largely autobiographical. For Rock, like his character, is at a turning point in his own career and life (just recently Rock announced that he’s divorcing his wife of almost 19 years) and is moving ahead to be a creative writer and a director. Rock says that as a child his parents had him bused out of his poor black neighborhood to attend a mainly white school, but he said it only made him a target for white abuse. The film could perhaps be somewhat of an homage to Woody Allen (the main character is named Allen). Critics have been giving it good reviews and it’s been nominated for awards and is doing well at the U.S. box office. Rotten Tomatoes gives it an 8.5 rating.
Actually, it also reminds me of two of my other favorite films as well. Sullivan’s Travels is a classic 1942 film by Preston Sturges staring all-American, Joel McCrea, like Chris Rock’s character, a successful Hollywood director who wants to make socially-relevant films rather than light comedies, until he meets sexy, street-smart Veronica Lake and of another Woody Allen movie besides Annie Hall, 1980’s Stardust Memories. In that one, Woody plays an again successful film maker who wants to also make more “meaningful” films. At the end of it, he meets some aliens who, when Allen typically comments about the ‘uselessness of existence’, The aliens , much as Sullivan learned in the ’42 film, advise him to “just make funnier movies” and that that is the best thing he can do for the world. Rock comes to a similar conclusion in his Top Five film.
It’s clear, that Chris Rock was very influenced by these above classic films in subject, plot and characterization. Like all good artists, which this movie shows he has the potential of becoming, as well as an entertainer, Rock has learned from those who’ve gone before him, but has made it into something new again while commenting on our current society and current relationships. While some of the scenes and humor will make sense especially to his community, like Woody Allen, he’s also tapped into some very universal human experiences with which we can all relate and that’s why Top Five is so strongly recommended.
Below trailer for Chris Rock’s new Top Five Film:
See below Sullivan’s Travels classic 1941 movie with similar themes as Top Five:
Below Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, 1980, alien’s scene where they advise him to just make “ funnier” movies: