Nobody makes me feel stupider than a smart person. Partially because they don’t smell as bad, but mostly because they know shit I don’t. Like the Harelip. Her head is not only crammed full of rotten teeth and mucus but also facts. Like what time the bus comes, secrets about the Lindbergh Baby, and when you need to turn your bean burrito over in the microwave so it won’t have a slimy cold spot in the middle. The food equivalent of sleeping in the wet spot. The Harelip knows how to break car windows with her fist and how to make children cry.
As smart as the Harelip is, though, they didn’t teach her everything at Harvard. She keeps forgetting Walgreen’s has security cameras and that you shouldn’t taunt your friends while sniffing glue or you’ll end up in an emergency room explaining the whole thing to a doctor using a pick to unclog your nasal cavity.
It’s great comfort to idiots like me that nobody knows it all, and nobody does everything well. Football players are great at catching balls, but shit at not beating women and children. Doctors know how to prescribe drugs, but are lousy at parallel parking. Magicians can hide birds but suck at pretending they have friends.
Chris Rock is really fucking smart. He’s someone I listen to because he can precisely deconstruct people and situations, and then pinpoint the failures and phoniness. I would never want to meet him, though, because he’d be bored and I’d be scared. Also, he’d slice me open and all my dark terribleness would spill out like the guts of a Tauntaun.
As smart as he is, though, Chris Rock doesn’t make good movies. He wants to, and maybe someday he will. With Top Five, he’s really stretching, really going for that next level where movies have resonance. He even borrows from what he considers to be great. Specifically, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (and some Annie Hall) and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. While he gets some moments right, he misses on the whole. He’s not as confident as he should be, he’s tonally uneven, and he falls back on tropes and gimmicks from movies far worse than what he’s aspiring to.
Rock wrote and directed Top Five, which takes its name from bullshitting about your top five of this or your top five of that. In the movie it’s rappers. In my life, it’s usually flavors of Four Loko (Watermelon, Blue Hurricane, Uva Berry, Lemonade and Margarita). Rock also plays the lead, Andre Allen, a recovering alcoholic comic who’s made a fortune off a string of low-brow comedies about a gun-toting bear. We’re supposed to recognize Allen, but I don’t know if he is supposed to be Rock or one of his friends like shitstain on-the-screen Adam Sandler (who has a cameo). The problem with the on-screen Allen is that he’s nowhere near as smart or interesting as the guy who wrote him.
Allen wants to be taken seriously, so he’s made a movie about a Haitian slave rebellion that is fucking awful: pretentious and smug. Is it awful enough to be comedy fodder for the movie? It should be, but Rock doesn’t show us much I don’t know if that’s a budget decision or Rock pulling his punch. But if you’re going to reference a laughably-bad movie, let the audience laugh. Instead, Allen’s movie is bad enough to make me think Allen is dumb. Rock wants him to be self-aware and sympathetic. Yet, as written, the character isn’t smart enough to avoid making his own The Day the Clown Cried. He shit in his own bed.
Allen is also about to marry a reality TV diva (Gabrielle Union), one of those women on Bravo who scream at each other a lot and have no function beyond conspicuous consumption. Again, it’s hard to root for a character who would be dumb enough to marry into that kind of hell. What does he see in her? I wish the movie told us, because the story of how a smart guy can make bad decisions would have been a more interesting story than one where all the bad decisions were made before we meet him.
To promote his crap movie, Allen lets a reporter named Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) tag along for a day in New York. As soon as she hits the screen, you know what’s going to happen. She’s going to force him to reevaluate himself and they’re going to fall in love. Of course. Sort of pisses me off, because I’m a loser who likes to drink and I’ve been in love with Dawson way longer than this character. She can spend a day stocking Pringles at the Family Dollar with me any time. She’s so fucking pretty and soulful and smart.
I almost feel like the movie would have been better if Allen had spent the day with a dude and been forced to lay bare his soul to someone who just wears him down through brutal honesty. This love hanging and attraction hanging over their heads just gets in the way of what Rock wants to say. It’s the obvious plot.
Allen and Brown walk and talk all over New York. While that set up is superficially reminiscent of Woody Allen, Rock doesn’t use location nearly as well. In fact, it feels hemmed in, like this story could happen anywhere.
Brown challenges Allen to be honest about his past, the difficulties of fame and of the life he came from. He encounters challenges to his sobriety, and fears that he can’t be funny while sober. She too is a recovering alcoholic, has a child and is dealing with a boyfriend who it turns out is gay. As Mark Corrigan said on Peep Show, "She's got the magical combo of beauty and low self-esteem!"
There is one moment in a supermarket that is a clumsily-plotted turning point. There are also a couple of nice scenes. In particular, a game of double dutch on a sidewalk, and when Allen’s character inadvertently gets some great career advice from the rapper DMX. That advice is, people don’t owe you anything. Just because you want to be taken seriously doesn’t mean you’ve earned it. Embrace what you’re good at.
It’s sort of surreal for that to be Top Five’s message since Rock is trying so hard to be taken seriously here, trying so hard not just to do what he’s good at. His message is right, though. He should have focused on what he’s good at.
That is, the comedy. Top Five has it, but it’s mostly compartmentalized into vignettes, like lumps in the movie dough. Sometimes, they’re funny, though, like a flashback to a terrible promoter in Houston played by Cedric the Entertainer who wants the wooden hangers out of his hotel room and hires two hookers for Allen, but ends up screwing them and leaving Rock to sleep in the cold burrito. Or, there’s a trip to the projects to see Allen’s family, mostly drunk, and listening to them talk over each other, razz and argue. It’s got a different energy, almost like Spike Lee directed the scene. Then there are the stabs at comedy that are way too base for Rock’s ambition. Specifically, a subplot about Brown’s gay boyfriend (Anders Holm) and his fetish for getting stuff stuck up his butt.
The comedy, though, just feels like Rock hedging his bet, just in case the story he really wants to tell isn’t good enough. Rock also reveals his insecurity when he throws a friend like Sandler into the movie. Rock likes Sandler, but that asshole is the epitome of shitty, worthless moviemaking and has no place in a movie about someone questioning the value of what he does.
Rock’s right to worry about whether his story is good enough. It isn’t. Not yet. It will be if he gets the balls to be more ruthless. It doesn’t take a genius to see that. Thank God, I’m not one. Two Fingers for Top Five.
On a side note: I want to remind people that you are under no obligation to see Into the Woods or Annie. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. No matter how much money the grassfuckers spent, or how much the actors loved playing dress up and singing songs, or how big a spectacle they make, you don’t have to pay for it or pretend you liked it just because there’s songs and dancing and urchins. Stop humoring Hollywood. Be honest with them and tell them you fucking hate musicals, which we all do. be honest with yourself and admit it.