December 12, 2014

Top Five

Take note: I didn't wear a suit & tie
for Grown Ups 2.

Grade: B
Director: Chris Rock
Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, JB Smoove, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, Romany Malco, Anders Holm and Cedric the Entertainer
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr. 41 min.

Incorporating loose elements from Cinderella, Top Five is writer-director-star Chris Rock’s fractured fairy tale about the travails of being black and famous in America. Part comedy, part confessional, the film’s eclectic Woody Allen echoes reverberate through an urban canyon, following a meandering path that nonetheless reaches a thoughtful and even poignant destination.

Rock plays the thinly-veiled Andre Allen, a former standup comedian turned film star in the midst of two professional/personal turning points. Allen yearns to transcend his star-making but ultimately humiliating recurring movie role named “Hammy the Bear.” So, he decides to make a “serious” film named Uprize, a humorless but misbegotten movie about Dutty Boukman and the bloody 1791 Haitian slave revolt. Meanwhile, Allen is poised to marry Erica (Gabrielle Union), a blond weave-wearing reality TV star who is coordinating the wedding as a ratings-grabbing event for Bravo.

The success of both endeavors is crucial for Allen, a recovering alcoholic who is one flop away from having to stoop to Dancing With the Stars, according to his agent (Kevin Hart). So Allen agrees to be interviewed for The New York Times by Chelsea Brown, a reporter and single mom unintimidated by Allen’s celebrity and dismissive demeanor.

Together, they traverse Allen’s life, starting with his new world of PR reps, groupies, opportunists, and a media that vacillates between unctuous and antagonistic. They make their way back to Allen’s old neighborhood, where his father (Ben Vereen) begs for money whilst branding his son as a sellout. Allen’s extended friends and relatives—played by Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Sherri Shepherd, Jay Pharoah and others—sit around and argue endlessly about their top five all-time rappers.

These lists of hip-hop superlatives are the film’s refrain, the ties that binds Allen’s divergent circles together. Meantime, Allen grapples with the fact that he feels like a stranger in both worlds, with duplicity around every corner. Ultimately, the only place he feels utterly at home and can “keep it real" is the one place he vows to never return: the comedy stage.

Top Five is profusely profane, and the sexuality of several scenes straddles the line of being gratuitous—a hotel scene involving a hedonistic Cedric the Entertainer and two hookers springs to mind. Then there are the kinky proclivities of Chelsea’s closeted boyfriend.

Indeed, only a Chris Rock movie would tackle the pitfalls of an interracial relationship involving a closeted gay man, or show a bawdy Jerry Seinfeld making it rain in a strip club, or reel off a joke about Marilyn Monroe and JFK’s assassination. Despite its rather formulaic finale, it all works by somehow bemoaning the worries of the rich and famous without sacrificing its mainstream accessibility.