“Not on camera, it doesn’t exist.”
There is no better time for film than the end of December. Countless movies are purposefully released at the climax of the calendar year to obtain relevance come awards season. This happens for a reason; these movies, by and large, really are the best you’ll see. The studios know it. Trust me, the “Dump months” of January and February is a term for a reason. Even with the great trailer, I expected to be letdown by Top Five. Chris Rock had yet to deliver as a filmmaker and I couldn’t fully invest my faith in him. Now that I’ve seen it, my best of the year list might have to get shaken up. It’s that good. Backed by a deep and multi-talented supporting cast, too large to single out, Rock and his biting humor have matured into an auteur.
We start off three days prior to Andre Allen’s (Chris Rock) televised wedding to his reality star fiance Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). Andre’s a recovering alcoholic and washed up actor, most famous for his Hammy the Bear movies, starring Andre dressed up in a bear costume and fighting crime. He’s over being the funny guy and wants to be taken seriously, so naturally he makes the movie Uprize, a misguided take on the Haitian slave rebellion. The wedding is getting better, and more, press than the soon to be tanking movie. Andre has a lot on his plate.
While juggling press and the “big” movie premier, New York Times columnist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) spends the day with Andre. Top Five is just as much about her as it is him. As I sit here trying to sum up the movie, I find myself continuously drawing blanks. So much happens, so many miniscule details and a handful of integral scenes, that it’s hard to encapsulate everything. That’s the beauty of it. Top Five, like this year’s previous film Birdman, is a story with a message and a purpose. It’s no surprise that Michael Keaton and Chris Rock respectively play character’s with career trajectories similar to their own in each film. The level of authenticity and honesty is staggering.
On a technical level, Chris Rock, the mind behind the writing and directing, delivers better results than a lot of what’s been released this year. It’s fiercely edited and perfectly paced. Even when scenes drag on, which a few do, you don’t get bored or lost. It’s that way for a reason. My favorite part of the film, something so banal and ordinary, is the ambient noise. While walking the streets of New York we constantly hear the flood of conversations and sounds happening all around the central characters. “Hammy” is yelled at Andre incessantly. Rock proves that he knows what is real. He’s lived this life, he’s been the guy who wants to be taken seriously. The film could not have been made earlier in his career. It just wouldn’t have been possible.
I never thought it would get the attention of the Academy since so few comedies ever do, but Top Five was absolutely snubbed by the Golden Globes. This is one of the best scripts to come along this year, and it might be the hardest I’ve laughed at a movie in a long time. Chris Rock proves that he can write, showing restraint and craftsmanship, always pushing the laughs but never sacrificing the dramatic arc of his character. The balance he can achieve between a serious account of sobering up and the wildest, most gut-busting sex scene I’ve ever seen is outrageously good. He certainly can’t play this kind of character forever…it’s just too HIM. But this is definitely the beginning of a new voice to be reckoned with in filmmaking.
Rock is on record in recent interviews that for the past 20 years or so he’s gone to Louis C.K. and asked if something is funny or not. Not a bad guy to ask. C.K’s response? “What would really happen?” And then Rock asked mighty director Alexander Payne what he should do. “You’re being too safe,” Payne Said. Rock says you have to write what you know, and that’s certainly what he’s done here. And my only complaint is that this film doesn’t feel like it’s his own, as I previously said, like it’s really HIM. Parts seem straight out of an episode of Louie, it’s undeniably influenced by Woody Allen’s New York affinity, and numerous scenes undoubtedly resemble Richard Linklater’s long tracking conversational shots. That’s probably due to Rock’s film 2 Days in New York co-starring Linklater’s frequent collaborator Julie Delpy. Top Five is a raw look at celebrity culture and relationships. Happiness hinges on other people. That’s a simple fact. By the time it ends, after you think you’ve been watching a pitch perfect dramedy, the last shots smacks you in the face. This is a personal love story, for comedy, relationships, and the art of storytelling. Top Five gets damn near everything right.
“It’s never just a movie.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5