The settings for conversation in Chris Rock’s Top Five are awfully contrived, but wow, are those conversations good.
For this meta exploration of contemporary movie stardom, Rock casts himself as Andre Allen, a hugely popular star due to his series of Hammy the Bear action comedies. Seeking artistic credibility, Allen is next starring in a historical drama about a Haitian slave uprising (called Uprize). At the same time, he’s agreed to marry his girlfriend (a very good Gabrielle Union) in a reality-television special. Trying to make sense of this is an enterprising New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) who shadows Allen during a day of publicity rounds, pestering him about the curious state of his career.
I suppose I can forgive the egregious dismissal of any sort of journalistic standards in order for this framing device to function (after all, I do so for His Girl Friday). And if some of the other staging – be it with childhood friends in the apartment complex where Allen grew up or with comic contemporaries like Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld in a strip club – often feels forced, the conversational nuggets that emerge are immensely entertaining. And then there is a priceless cameo from rapper DMX, who shares his own artistic aspirations with Allen by launching into an ill-advised (and poorly received) a cappella version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” Who knew DMX could do a one-man version of Sullivan’s Travels?
The heart of the film, though, consists of the discussions between Rock and Dawson, which touch on everything from the nature of comedy to the cultural significance of Barack Obama. Dawson is clearly working at a different level than Rock is – she’s playing a person, while Allen is a variation on Rock’s own persona – yet their interplay is sweet and smart. At their best, their scenes recall His Girl Friday for good reasons.
That’s not a ridiculous association to make, for Rock – as a writer and director – aims high. Recall that his previous effort, I Think I Love My Wife, was an adaptation of Eric Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon. Top Five has its limitations as a conversational romantic comedy, yet one of the movie’s lovely ironies is that even as it skewers a comedian’s attempts to be taking seriously, it offers further evidence that audiences should be doing exactly that with Chris Rock.