Perhaps Top Five is Chris Rock’s penance for doing lucrative-paying voices for the insanely popular Madagascar animation franchise.
Top Five, written and directed by Chris Rock. Showing on screens around New England.
By Gerald Peary
In Top Five, Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is an African-American comedian who is tired of what he’s beloved for, starring in a forever-running Hollywood series as “Hammy the Bear,” a zany policeman hidden under a bruin suit. He’s exhausted by every interview where he is asked, anew, “Were you the class clown in high school?” He’s sick of cheap laughs, and determined to reinvent himself as a social-conscious filmmaker. Thus his new feature film, Uprize, a noble uncovering of black history, the little-known saga of Dutty Boukman, a real-life Haitian revolutionist, perhaps the killer of 50,000 whites, and played proudly in his movie by Allen himself.
Will the “Hammy the Bear” crowd show up?
Allen should have learned from Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1969 Burn!, starring Marlon Brando, the fictionalized story of Toussaint L’Ouverture. It’s one of the greatest political films ever made but hardly seen by anyone. Mass audiences are not going to pay for a movie about a late 18th century Haitian uprising. And especially not, as we see in Top Five, if there’s a Tyler Perry comedy competing with it at the multiplex. It takes a long while in the movie for Allen to figure out the obvious. For most people, movies are escapist entertainment, and that will never change. Making people laugh is OK. It was the lesson of Preston Sturges’s masterly 1942 Sullivan’s Travels, and it holds in Top Five. As they always say in LA, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”
Still, there are intimations that Rock, as the film’s writer-director, had thoughts of making Top Five more than a rote comedy like I Think I Love My Wife, his last venture as a director. There are moments when he gets close to the claustrophobia he encounters as a popular African-American entertainer, pushed by his bros to be more black, pushed by Hollywood to be neutered and commercial, pushed by himself to use his voice more effectively to teach others about African-American history and artistry.
Perhaps Top Five is his penance for doing lucrative-paying voices for the insanely popular Madagascar animation franchise, his own “Hammy the Bear” past?
Credit Rock for his generous inclusion in the cast of a host of African-American comedians, and for providing space for them to be raucous, raunchy, and belly-laugh funny. I’m talking about headliners like Kevin Hart and Tracy Morgan and somewhat lesser-knowns Sherri Shepherd, Leslie Jones, and J.B. Smoove. And then there’s the legendary Cedric the Entertainer. He’s an uproarious force, though probably allowed too much freedom as a hard-partying, excessive-drinking, unleashed sexual animal.
But much of the above is on the fringes of Top Five. The main plot is a throwback screwball love triangle, and it’s rarely inspired or funny. When we first encounter him, Allen is several days away from a misconceived marriage to glossy Erica (Gabrielle Union), a reality TV star. But then he meets the glamorous Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), who has come to interview him for a piece in The New York Times. She’s hot. She’s beautiful. She’s whip smart. But, straining credibility, where is her Times’ staffer professionalism? Chelsea is badly prepared to question Andre, she blabs everything personal about herself (her alcoholism, her covertly gay fiancée), and she has a secret identity to boot. Also, she freelances for Cosmopolitan. For any of the above indiscretions, the Paper of Record would fire her in an instant. Can we believe for a second that she’s at the up-tight Times?
More troubling than plot credibility are Top Five’s weird sexual politics, including some very sketchy homophobia. In flashback, there are two elongated sex scenes which are startlingly gratuitous, and truly coarse and gross. The first involves Allen getting blowjobs from two hookers, and then Cedric the Entertainer jumping in the bed for some additional oral satisfaction. The second gives us Chelsea’s secretly homosexual boyfriend naked on a mattress, his bare rump in the air beckoning for Chelsea’s finger. Yes, it’s far more than we want to know about Chelsea’s dissatisfied love life. Or about the oral desires of Andre Allen.
Perhaps a well-placed Haitian slave revolt could clear the palate?
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess