Saturday, 9 May 2015


(Chris Rock, 2015)

Chris Rock is pushing himself in some unusual directions as he attempts to fit the talent that makes his stand-up so provocative and fascinating into cinema. So far, it hasn't entirely worked. On stage, using only his ideas, language and expressiveness, he can discuss anything, and flip between topics at will. His talent means an audience will always go with him. Relationships, sex, politics, showbiz, pop culture, everyday banalities, ageing - he can cover them all in a gig. And with Top Five he tries to do something similar.
But cinema - or cinema audiences, at any rate - demand that each narrative fits into a genre. It's how people understand what they're seeing, how they filter and adjust expectations, how they read stories and styles. And so Top Five is a romantic comedy, of sorts. It follows Andre Allen (Rock), a former stand-up turned Hollywood megastar, best known for a series of action comedies where he plays Hammy the Bear in a full bear suit (one of the best gags in the movie is the way everywhere he goes people constantly shout "Yo Hammy!" at him from the background) as he tries to promote his new film, "Uprize", about a Haitian slave revolt. Allen wants to be taken seriously, but the only thing the media are interested in is his forthcoming marriage to a huge reality star (Gabrielle Union). As part of the promotional circus, Allen agrees to having a New York Times journalist follow him around all day. That journalist turns out to be smart, beautiful, challenging Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), and as they get to know one another, Allen is forced to question some of his decisions and attitudes, and so is Chelsea.
That plot allows Rock to take plenty of shots at showbiz ridiculousness, but there are interesting ideas here about fame and the media, addiction and self-deception. If the big influences here seem to be Woody Allen and Albert Brooks, then the scattergun approach Rock chooses means this film is less consistent than their work. Some of the other material is suspect: much of the stuff about relationships is cliched bordering on retrograde, and there is more than a whiff of homophobia to one extended sequence in particular. But Rock's character is funny in a believable way, working himself up into a rant when forced to, and there are some really good gags here. He shared the yuks around too - alongside cameos for Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, Tracy Morgan, DMX and Jerry Seinfeld, perhaps the best sequence in the movie sees Andre take Chelsea back to his roots, where an impromptu gathering of friends in an apartment is a series of riffs and friendly insults that does more to humanise him than the entire preceding hour.
Rock and Dawson are both good, but their chemistry is better - duelling intelligences, arguing and debating and bonding, all framed against New York in summer, shot gloriously by Manuel Alberto Claro, Lars Von Trier's usual D.P.
So: as a romcom, this works. But it's greater ambitions are what make it really interesting, even if it never quiet fulfils what Rock seems to be aiming for.

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