3 1/2 out of 4 stars
Chris Rock’s comedic genius is no longer limited to stand-up.
For years, he had been the man on the stage, but a boy on the screen, relegated to complementary roles in good – never great – films. He made the audience smile, but never burst into laughter – until now.
Top Five is Rock’s No. 1 film by far, and quite possibly the best comedy of the year, rivaling Neighbors and The Other Woman. But what sets Top Five apart is it’s a comedy that doesn’t always try to be a comedy since so much of the film can be traced to Rock’s roots growing up in the Bedford–Stuyvesant projects of Brooklyn.
In Top Five, Rock plays Andre Allen, a ghetto kid who parlayed his success as a stand-up comic to become a box office icon with a series of super cheesy Hammy the Bear movies where he embarrasses himself as a Rambo-like undercover cop in a grizzly suit. He’s killing it at the box office while getting killed by critics as he lives a life that’s a buffet of booze, beer and breasts.
But after hitting rock bottom in a hotel in Houston that will go down as one of the funniest scenes of the year or the most lewd — depending on your point of view — Allen becomes clean and sober as he prepares to wed Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), a gold-digging, Kardashian-like reality star whose more about sex than smarts. But before tying the knot, Allen agrees to let New York Times reporter Chelsea (Rosario Dawson) follow him around for the day, as they zigzag throughout New York City, from Manhattan to the projects where he was raised.
Rock and Dawson share amazing chemistry, whether it’s when he introduces her to his childhood pals and family or when she’s explaining the freakish sex she’s had while battling addiction. Rock, who has always commanded a big presence on stage, confides to Chelsea that now that he’s sober, he doesn’t think he’s no longer funny, which is why he’s trying to do serious movies.
The brilliance of Top Five is that jokes aren’t forced. In between punchlines, Rock and Dawson drop their guards, showing they’re sharing a lot more than an interview. Top Five has some shades of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, yet very much stands on its own. Rock’s ability to make everyone funnier around him shines throughout the 112-minute film that features so many A-list cameos it would be criminal to list them.
But Top Five — the title refers to Andre and his friends and family members’ on-the-spot rankings of best-all-time rappers, with everyone from Rakim to Salt ’n’ Pepa making someone’s list — provides scenes for Rock to return to his stand-up act, whether it’s on stage or during his interactions with Chelsea.
Rock’s performance can’t be understated. He’s not just funny — he’s hysterical, especially when he claims Tupac Shakur would be in politics or a Tyler Perry movie if he was still alive, or how the release of the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes led to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And those don’t even make Top Five’s top five scenes.
Top Five starts kind of slow at first, but picks up quickly as each moving part becomes a punchline, whether it’s the opening of Allen’s latest movie where he plays a machete-wielding Haitian slave, his uneasiness with his wedding to Erica that’s more about pushing the limits of reality TV than eternal love or his bachelor party that’s filled with more stars than strippers.
Rock’s third try at direction after reaching mediocrity in Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife, Top Five shows Rock should never be underestimated, as Top Five puts him on the short of list of the best comedians of his generation.
(All photos via YouTube trailer)
Jon Gallo is an award-winning journalist and editor with 18 years experience, including stints as a staff writer at The Washington Post and sports editor at The Baltimore Examiner. He’s also an editor for CBSSports.com. He’s crossing his fingers the only baseball team in Baltimore that will contend for a title this summer won’t be his fantasy squad, the Catonsville Cartel. He also believes the government should declare federal holidays in honor of the following: the Round of 64 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; the Friday of the Sweet 16; the Monday after the Super Bowl; and of course, the day after the release of the latest Madden NFL video game.