TOP FIVE – the TOP comedy of the year

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TOP FIVE is Chris Rock’s ANNIE HALL. Ït’s more than just “interesting” (see it to get that joke), it’s impressive.

Rock writes & directs this movie about stand-up comedy, battling addictions, wrestling with your own identity, relationships, and love. FIVE never gets preachy or melodramatic. While maintaining the impressive drama throughout, Rock also makes sure we laugh our asses off.

This R-Rated adult comedy easily soars above other SNL-ers recent (juvenile) movies.

CHRIS ROCK (as a writer/director) reminds me of a blend between WOODY ALLEN and KEVIN SMITH. There’s fast dialogue, whizzing zingers by us like bullets. Friendships and romance is handled with realism. Aside from the more intellectual and witty analysis, there is a fair amount of low-brow raunchy comedy relying on absurd situations and physical jokes. The highlight of TOP FIVE is the electric dialogue and impressive cast of characters.

Essentially, the story follows a famous comedian, ANDRE (Rock), who has battled alcoholism and now wants to be taken seriously. His first big drama is about to premiere days before his super-hyped wedding to a super-shallow reality TV star (GABRIELLE UNION).

Enter ROSARIO DAWSON, a reporter scheduled for a day-long interview with Andre. Over the day, she reminds him of his roots, and they begin to form a connection. This interview plot-line allows us to jump around into the past and learn why Andre has a change of heart.

The flashback of why he stopped drinking was one the most insane scenes of any comedy this year…

One crazy drunken night, CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER makes sure Andre has a good time while he’s in town. Fast forward a bit… And Andre is in full-on threesome mode. Things get super nuts. I won’t ruin it here, but I will say that this level of absurd gross-out comedy reminded me of CB-4 – one of Rock’s earliest movies spoofing gangster rap (like NWA). I hope that retro shout-out got some songs popping up in your head, like “Straight Outta LowCash” and “My Nuts.”

One of the funniest scenes was when Andre records promos for a radio station. The producer keeps asking him to be funnier with the advertizement. How do you make, “Hi, I’m Andre Allen, listen to this radio station,” funny and still stick to the ad’s script? Eventually, Andre realizes the producer means, “Be Blacker”. What’s that supposed to mean? So, fed up with being characterized all the time, Andre gives him what he wants – getting all aggressive and saying “mother f**ker” every second word. It was so hilarious. And then under the surface it’s still saying something. It’s commenting on society. It doesn’t hit us over the head with the message. We think about it, after we calm down from laughing so hard.

Thankfully, Rock has come a long way from CB4 and SNL. He seemed to lose a lot of the more adolescent humour with his daring stand-up specials. He got raunchy, but he also explored political and social commentary. His previous indie films didn’t get the traction they probably deserved. His talent was still blooming. He didn’t perfect the chemistry of film-making yet. But he’s getting closer and closer.

Chris Rock could become an indie darling if he continues to focus on character dramas like TOP FIVE. And I’m being dead serious here. Rock has written and directed before, but with FIVE he strikes that balance between making us laugh and saying something. There’s the perfect amount of both genres here – like Woody Allen did so well with ANNIE HALL.

Rosario Dawson is Diane Keaton in this parallel equation. She portrays a complex character with her own backstory and plot twists. She handled the firecracker dialogue really well. It’s an often-overlooked element because you only really notice it if it’s bad. Rock is used to crafting longer speeches for stand-up, but not everyone can seem genuine when they rift with such speed. The end result is a good rhythm between the two.

TOP FIVE is filled with cameos. There are so many good characters that show up briefly. J SMOOVE gets the most screentime as Rock’s friend / assistant / bodyguard. The cameo highlights include KEVIN HART as an agent (with a memorable speech about the political correctness of the N word in the office), several current SNL-ers (JAY PHAROAH, LISA LESLIE, and MICHAEL CHE) appear as part of Andre’s close-knit group of neighbourhood friends (TRACY MORGAN among them), and a few comedic legends near the end. It’s worth the wait to see ADAM SANDLER and JERRY SEINFELD share the screen with Chris Rock.

Thematically, there is also a real-life parallel going on. Several famous comedians have disappeared without notice from the stand-up stage to never return, Rock being one of them. His character, Andre, seems to also represent other comedians like Dave Chapelle, Eddie Murphy, and Richard Pryor. Andre is an alcoholic. He’s only been funny when he’s drunk or high. Sure, he wants to be taken seriously with drama, but he also feels he can’t be funny sober. The pressure’s made him retreat and hide in a different genre. Thankfully, before the end of TOP FIVE we see Rock’s character perform in front of the familiar brick-wall setting of a comedy club.

Dawson’s interviewer meets the real Andre when he takes her to his old stomping grounds from his youth. This is where the movie shines with true intimacy. We see an inside glimpse to this celebrity. We see he is real. He’s a lot more than his famous role of Hammy the Bear. These old friends talk about their TOP FIVE – a list of the best rappers. Everyone has their own ideas, and everyone else argues it. It’s simple. But effective. And a good recurring theme throughout the film.

The List also reveals the hypocrisy behind Andre’s hurt feelings. He feels he’s judged as a dumb comedian, when he has something to say. He’s got more substance than voicing a Bear in a juvenile comedy. He doesn’t like how the audience judges him. More importantly he doesn’t like it when movie critics like Dawson judge him. It’s ironic because Andrew grew up judging artists with the Top 5 lists.

Real-life Rock must feel somewhat similar. He has something to say. With TOP FIVE he strikes that balance. He says something inbetween laughs. Imagine if one his Top 5 rappers, suddenly switched it up to sing Gospel or something. Wait, that’s what the DMX cameo said, right?

With Romances you always know what to expect. Boy meets girl, they fall in love. The end. FIVE avoids those cliches, while still thriving on emotions. I really wanted to see Rock and Dawson get together. But they don’t fall in love within 30 minutes, and follow the genre’s stereotypes. They don’t get all lovey dubby only to break-up near the end for 5 minutes and get back together. By the end, it’s not about seeing these two get together and consumate their budding love. It’s about the struggle to love yourself before your love someone else.

The movie focuses on that love story instead, but still ends on a triumphant and emotional moment.

TOP FIVE is a revelation. Chris Rock could be the new Woody Allen. He gives us romance with realism, capped with a fairy tale ending. He gives us raunchy comedy, mixed with social commentary. The dialogue crackles. All of the character breathe.

TOP FIVE is one of the best comedies of last year, that also became one of my favourite dramas.

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What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Was this one of the Top 5 Comedies last year?

What do you think of Chris Rock as a writer / director?

Do you think the ANNIE HALL / WOODY ALLEN comparison is fair?

What did you think of Rosario Dawson’s performance?

Who was your favourite cameo?

Have you seen earlier Chris Rock movie’s like CB4? Are you hoping Rock returns to stand-up comedy for another special?

Who is in your Top 5 Comedians? I’m thinking: Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy.

What’s your Top Five? I’m thinking:  Tupac, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Public Enemy.

So... What'd you think?

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