Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: "Top Five"

Director: Chris Rock
Runtime: 102 minutes

Chris Rock has had trouble branching outside of standup in the past, watering down his comedic persona in unsatisfying and off-putting ways. That all changes with Top Five, the writer/director's third feature. Fast, funny, and surprisingly human, Rock's honest look at fame and artistic integrity announces him as an exciting new voice in filmmaking. With Top Five, the comedian has made a topical comedy that brilliantly applies Rock's style to standard narrative proceedings.

Set entirely over the course of one day (albeit with several flashbacks), Top Five opens with its protagonist at his high point professionally and his lowest point artistically. Andre Allen (Rock) started off as an acclaimed comedian, only to get scooped up by Hollywood and put in a series of idiotic, hugely successful blockbusters. Now, he's set to take premiere a drama about a slave rebellion to prove that he can be more than a catch phrase. He's also gearing up to wed reality star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union, who appears to have found the fountain of youth), the woman he claims saved him from his alcoholism. While the early part of Andre's day is filled with featherweight interviews, things take a turn when New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) arrives. Her goal is to shadow Andre and craft a lengthy profile piece for the Times, a publication that regularly savages the comedian's film work. 

Though the ensemble is vibrant, Top Five is at its finest when it zeroes in on Andre and Chelsea making their way across Manhattan. Some scenes recall Richard Linklater's Before series, with one man and one woman merely walking and engaging in spirited conversation. Rock's characters avoid simple stereotypes (even Erica emerges as a real person by the end), but it's in Andre and Chelsea's relationship truly finds its footing. The comedian sometimes retreats into schticky, manic, bug-eyed behavior, but the role still allows him to prove his worth as a solid screen presence. And that bug-eyed intensity comes in handy during some of the film's more outrageous sequences. Dawson, on the other hand, is nothing short of a delight to watch. She brings an cutting intelligence to Chelsea without turning her into an accidental villain. Instead, the character becomes a well-rounded foil for Andre. Rock is the film's star, its director, and its writer, but Dawson is the one who really holds your attention when things start to get serious.

But before things get too heavy, Top Five knows how to bring in the laughs. Without turning into a barrage of jokes, Rock's script allows for humor to naturally find its way into every day conversation. The discussions cover all sorts of topics, including race, yet the writing avoids forcing punchlines for the sake of a tidy joke. Top Five is at its funniest when it simply lets a scene roll along like a high-intensity improv session. One highlight is an extended sequence where Andre visits family and friends from his old neighborhood, and voices trample over each other throwing out insults, jokes, and more. Even when the film dips into cruder territory, as in a flashback detailing a disastrous incident in Houston, Rock manages to find the outrageous hilarity of the brief cringe-inducing moments.

Top Five is also majorly successful when it comes to pacing. At just over 100 minutes, the film's energy never flags, even when Andre and Chelsea's professional relationship really hits the skids. Rock has crafted a story that bounces from scene-to-scene without giving any angle the short end of the stick. The briskness of the pacing keeps the film's comedic energy consistently up, ensuring that the more dramatic scenes don't disrupt the story's flow. The flashbacks, which could have easily been a distraction, end up being invaluable pieces that flesh out Andre's background. 

It can be difficult to craft an accessible comedy without resorting to easy jokes and bottom-of-the-barrel gags. Thankfully, Top Five balances several types of humor all while naturally working it into the DNA of an incisive character study. Top Five is much more than a showcase for its leading man. It's a demonstration that not only is Chris Rock's comedic sensibility capable of being transferred to film, but that he's a genuinely effective storyteller who can do more than deliver a killer joke. 

Grade: B+

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