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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Top Five Review: Funny Moments Lessened By Needless Drama

Top Five's outrageous humor can't keep its larger story afloat.

For Comedian Chris Rock, life has been one assembly line film after another: Grown Ups, What To Do When You're Expecting, Grown Ups 2, etc. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when he tries something deeper, because his behavior for years (sans Dogma) has been something very different. For Top Five - a project he wrote, directed, and stars - the many monumentally funny exchanges can't keep the interesting premise afloat.

Andre Allen (Rock) is a superstar of film whose bear-suited cop comedies Hammy The Bear have netted him millions and demanding fans who want to see more of the same. Not for Allen: he's ready to star in important films, such as the poorly-received historical drama Uprize, about the Haitian slave rebellion. At the same time, he's getting ready to marry reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), while sitting with press members who couldn't care less about his new film. It's here that he meets New York Times writer Chelsea Brown (a shaved-side Rosario Dawson), whose publication has been unkind and even mean to Andre for years. As he struggles with not wanting to be funny anymore, Andre learns that the consequences of a career shift could land him on Dancing with the Stars, and that he might not be ready to settle down.

Rock the director shoots a pretty tasty reel - guided by the curious choice of Nymphomaniac's cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro - keeping the moment tight on his characters while giving them enough space to ad-lib through what feels about 50% of the film. Some of that just doesn't work, such as an extended piece at Andre's former girlfriend's house, where everyone - and I mean everyone - pontificates on their top five rappers. (Memo: if your list doesn't include Kool Keith and De La Soul, you have no reason being in the room.) Like most skits here, these have little to no bearing on the story, including a hilarious but entire disconnected sequence with Dawson's solution for her closet-homosexual boyfriend.

But when things get heavy, Rock the dramatic actor just doesn't have the chops to carry the weight of dealing with his recent failures and worries that his best days might be over. Those serious moments neither leave a finished taste in your mouth, nor do they ever carry through to the predictable ending. He assembles a list of cameos that might be the best of 2014 - I won't share that long list, but it's definitely a who's-who of comedy. Unfortunately, most of them don't drive the story enough to be anything other than funny distractions.

Five also suffers from a far-fetched scenario: the one thing Allen doesn't want to do is what he exactly does at film's end. There's no discussion, no monologue or epiphany that shows him the way back. Its reliance on showing a world few can relate to - and how Allen seems to be suffering in it - does nothing to ground us to Andre, even when the big reveal (we'll keep it from you here) is dropped. That's actually one part that's introduced quite well, but Andre is far gone to make the right (or realistic) decision, further adding to fanciful way people are portrayed throughout the film. In short, no one here comes off as clean as Rock wants us to think, each mired in their own petty conversations while looking down at others, while those near the bottom rail against stars and their egos.

It's too bad that Rock couldn't stay in that dramatic realm, leaving some of the comedy out and focusing on the supposed message. By the time the credits roll, we're not sure if we've seen a terse condemnation of the Hollywood system or an outrageous comedy that throws too much seriousness in for color. This is more like a poor man's High Fidelity, stuck with a romantic journey laid out from the moment we're introduced to Dawson rather than a character journey that takes John Cusak months to figure out. Any chance Top Five has to move us to this hallowed ground gets lost in homophobic jokes and other lightweight comedy that's just too tonally different. An interesting exchange between Rock and his unappreciative dad is too much for us to process before another disgusting comedic interlude is introduced.

Top Five won't win any awards, but it's a mostly funny comedy about realizing who you are, even if the world desperately wants you to be someone else. The final result won't be anything life-changing, but you'll laugh a lot while trying to figure out why there's even a story thrown in here. If such an uneven presentation is your measure of a good time, then by all means take a chance on it. You could do worse.

Top Five is Rated R for just about everything under the sun and has a runtime of 101 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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