Top Five: Chris Rock’s Boisterous, Poignant Personal Comedy

top_five_1_rockChris Rock’s boisterous comedy, Top Five, is an auteurist effort par excellence: The funnyman wrote, directed, and stars in this genial yet poignant look at the chaotic life of a black standup comic–not unlike himself–as he struggles and thrives in a white-dominant culture.

Rock boasts such a charming and strong screen presence that you wonder why he has not written, directed, or even appeared in many other films.

 

top_five_4_rock_dawsonRock playsAndré Allen, a popular comedian whose former forays into writing and directing have met with critical brickbats, to say the least.

Unfazed, and to promote his latest effort, which happens to be a historical drama about a nineteenth-century Haitian freedom fighter, Andre agrees to be interviewed for a profile by Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a journalist from the New York Times.

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What begins as a professional collaboration turns into something more personal and even romantic.  Chelsea (named after Chelsea Clinton?) follows Andre everywhere he goes, soon becoming a part of his life–in spite of his or her better judgment.

This movie account reveals André’s fears, anxieties, and joys–not all of which are funny.  Some of the revelations and disclosures are serious, even somber, but they are never frivolous or boring, and they always ring true.

As noted, “Top Five” is a personal movie, but  despite being necessarily self-conscious, it is not a vanity project or an ego trip.  By now Rock is too secure and established a performer to do that.

In interviews, Rock has said that he was inspired by the personal films of writer-director-star Woody Allen (whom he admires), specifically in such early works as “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” and “Stardust Memories.”

top_five_2_rock_seinfeldOverall, the film is better written than directed, but with more assignments, Rock should develop as a filmmaker with a better grip on the technical aspects.

The material, like many self-reflexive comedies, is necessarily episodic, and as such, uneven: Some of his foibles are staged as rather superfifical sketches, relying on sight gags and one-liners.

But the sequence about the meaning of being a black man in a predominantly white business is terrific, and bound to become a classic.

As a director, Rock has done a superlative job of casting numerous gifted comedians, both black and white.  Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, J. B. Smoove, Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld, and Adam Sandler all make an impression in their cameos or small parts.

The chemistry between Rock and Dawson as a couple is strong, turning “Top Give” into a sporadically endearing romantic comedy, or rather serio-comedy.

In a future column, I will show how Rock’s reveling in high and low comedy, blending of a star-studded comedic romp with satisfying romance, and combining surface showbusiness stuff with more serious politics, rap, and observations about fame, makes Top Five a postmodern film par excellence, an original and radically new kind of American movie.

Though the film was made a year ago, coming out in theaters right now, it should benefit from the racial conflicts and protests that are tearing American society in the wake of the shooting of young black men by white policemen.

On screen and off, Rock has been vocal about the status of black artists–including himself–in America, still a predominantly white society defined by a great divide.