I wish Chris Rock had made the transition to movie star more easily. “Top Five” is breezy and confident and when Rock finally finds his footing as an actor, the film truly shines. It made me happy that he finally found the vehicle, but also glad that he took so long to do it.
Occasionally, Rock will do the one thing that holds him back as an actor—he’ll become self-conscious that he’s doing a bit and he projects as if he’s onstage. It sucks the honesty out of the moment and it feels contrived, and just kind of sad. Still, there is that moment when Rock the Comic becomes a part of Rock the Actor (or maybe vice versa) and we see the delicate balance that has always eluded Rock come into a sharp focus: he’s playing himself without feeling like he’s playing himself. One scene, where he waxes on about the fallacy of making decisions while receiving (or immediately upon completion of) blowjobs is true comic genius. I knew then that the film didn’t just have me, it was probably going on a Top Five list of its own.
This is Rock’s walking and talking Woody Allen picture, a tour through his life and all the things that shaped him, set against the backdrop of a dramatic feature’s opening weekend and his impending marriage to a reality TV star.
Andre is a man wrestling with ghosts. He wants people to remember who he is: a successful ex-stand up comedian trying to transition into the dramatic arts and– perhaps more importantly—a funny man. He is desperate for a much needed personal victory. You could fairly call this Chris Rock’s “Rocky Balboa.” It’s uplifting. It romanticizes the past. It’s a reminder that fame is the fever dream and true happiness is what happens when that fever breaks.
The film is also a fairy tale that makes allusions to Cinderella, particularly in the ending, where Rock returns a shoe to the New York Times interviewer, Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), that he spends the film sparring with. Their interplay is cute, contentious, and honest. They bring out the best in one another. They talk about gender roles, sobriety, honesty, vindictiveness and even make the inevitable turn into romantic territory, but it feels right. They both excavate their darkest fears and greatest hopes, all the things they didn’t know they wanted or needed.
Perhaps the most important takeaway for me was the film’s exploration of The Critic. There’s an unfair consensus that only bitter people become critics, but there are so many bitter critics out there, you can’t help but wonder what’s going on. Chelsea is one of these people, and she has the good / bad fortune to run into Andre at a time when he could really use a friend, not a critic.
“Top Five” lifts the veil and lets us see the machinery inside. It invites us into a famous person’s headspace and tries to explain why it’s so tough to be famous. It’s hard not to be bitter about all the terrible things critics say. Everyone wants their piece of a famous person, even strangers. Fame is the elephant that never leaves the room. Andre is frustrated about the impossible standard to which he’s being held during his own reinvention, but what else can he do?
A personal entreaty: critics don’t live to take someone down a peg or two, but we do get defensive about protecting something we love. We’re even selfish enough to think that when a work speaks to us, we own it and the artist a little bit, unfair as that may seem. And yes, as critics and creators, we forget that it’s easy to make the pen poisonous. Even if it muddies the waters just a little bit, we would all do well to remember that there is a person behind the art, and we might like them in spite of what their art says about them or about us.
One running bit throughout the movie is Andre’s group of friends listing their Top Five rappers. It’s a microcosm of the movie’s thesis. Lists are how we celebrate an artistic medium, but there’s rarely consensus. They’re all over the place, but one thing is common. Top Five lists are about celebration. They reflect a joy in the art. Every list finds something unexpected being championed and the more you engage in the conversation, the more you find that there’s room for all of it.