Top Five (Paramount Pictures, R)

film top-five_75After its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, there have been some murmurings that this is a for-real awards contender.

film top-five

Top Five has some serious talent behind it. It stars and was written and directed by Chris Rock; it’s produced by Kanye West and Jay Z; Questlove did the music; and it’s one of those movies in which everyone recognizable in the history of the world seems to have a cameo, Anchorman 2-style. There are other things working in its favor, too: After its premiere this past September at the Toronto International Film Festival, there have been some murmurings that this is a for-real awards contender (which Anchorman 2 certainly was not), and its distributor, Paramount, is treating it as such. So it might actually be good!

The premise will interest anyone with even a slight liking of Rock: It’s about a movie star, Andre Allen (Rock), who initially made his name as a stand-up comedian, but then devolved into making a series of terrible mainstream movie comedies, blowing all of his cache as a talented performer. Sound familiar? (And not for nothing, supposedly Rock wrote this screenplay in his trailer between takes on Grown-Ups 2.)

Andre’s foil here is New York Times reporter Chelsea (Rosario Dawson, who, come to think of it, is one of our more underappreciated, reliable actresses—why hasn’t she ever gotten an Oscar nod?), who is writing a profile on him, and of whom Andre is wary on account of years of hostile reviews of his work from one of her colleagues at the Times. Most of Top Five concerns Andre and Chelsea wandering around New York City, conducting the interview, getting to know one another, reliving Andre’s past successes and failures, meeting his friends and family, etc.

Top Five is a funny movie, and, unless you’re predisposed against vulgarity (lots of profanity and gross-out humor here), it’s a hard film to imagine anyone outright not liking the film. At the same time, I don’t buy the awards contender positioning, and was ever-so-slightly disappointed with the movie, in that I wish it had leaned a little more on smart-funny than dumb-funny. (In reality, it’s about a 25/75 split on that front.) The opening half is strong and Rock and Dawson are as charismatic as ever (though Rock does a little too much mugging for the camera), but once a little bit of drama is introduced into the work, it loses its footing; thankfully, it lands its ending a lot more gracefully than any comedy in recent memory.

It seems safe to assume that Top Five will make a lot of money, and I’ll be happy if it does; we could use more comedies of this quality. But the big takeaway for me is that it made me want to go back and watch the classic Chris Rock stand-up specials, 1996’s Bring the Pain and 1999’s Bigger and Blacker, which are closer to the smart-funny that I got in Top Five. One has to assume that this is not the result Rock was hoping for, given the nature of this film. Both in its plot and its real-life release brand this as a comeback narrative, so to make you want to go back and watch the old stuff seems like the exact opposite of what this movie is trying to do. | Pete Timmermann

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