Top Five (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Andre Allen (Chris Rock), star of the cheesy “Hammy the Bear” movies and voted by TIME as the “Funniest Man in America” in 2005, has a new picture coming out. His agent insists that he meets with Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a writer for The New York Times, because good word-of-mouth from a respected source can boost ticket sales. Although Andre is reluctant to speak with her initially, especially due to scathing reviews by another writer in the Times, soon they grow comfortable around one another and swap stories of the roller coaster ride that is their lives.
Written and directed by Chris Rock, “Top Five” is an engaging, funny, and insightful film about a man who is struggling to redefine and reestablish himself. At the height of his celebrity, many people thought he was savagely funny, but behind a great comedian was an out-of-control alcoholic. Now sober, his audiences think that perhaps he has nothing else special to offer—now just chasing a spotlight that longer wants him.
The chemistry between Rock and Dawson singlehandedly elevates the material. When their characters are conversing, there is always an energetic interplay between them, as if underneath the layer were a playful dance. Included in this observations are the more dramatic scenes when there is friction between Andre and Chelsea. There is a theme involving a person having many identities. Sometimes these identities get confused and a part of learning to love another person is trying to embrace these identities even if it seems impossible to accept them initially.
Rock’s commentary about celebrity culture offers nothing new but there are enough refreshing details to avoid being reduced to cliché. Yes, it does skewer those who are obsessed with being followed by a camera, but the material also knows that they are human, too. Gabrielle Union plays Andre’s fiancée and she has one wonderful scene where she expresses her self-worth with painful clarity. I did not expect to come across that level of honesty in a movie that is supposed to be a light-hearted, modern love story.
What could have used some improvement are the flashbacks. While the comedy is well-timed and executed with verve, some do not have the necessary dramatic gravitas to serve as effective contrasts against the present, how Andre has changed for the better, more or less. If the ironies have been ironed out a little more, it might have made the protagonist, already likable, to become more sympathetic.
I enjoyed “Top Five” for its tiny nuggets of honesty about self-reflection, wanting to move on from a defining but unhealthy past, the yearning to reconnect with a passion and yet disconnect from the need to prove that one’s success is no fluke. The movie is funny but it also has a good story worth telling. A lot of comedies rest on the former and it is nice that once in a while a movie with a little more ambition comes around.