September 8, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto 2014 Review: “Top Five”


TOP FIVE:  No Current US Distributor or Release Date (but that will change very soon) – Worth A Ticket

Chris Rock is generally considered among the greatest stand-ups of his generation, and it’s been clear for some time that he wants to move up to the next cultural echelon, the level of regard where Woody Allen and more lately Louis C.K. dwell.  His 2003 directing debut Head of State was a routine comedy, but his 2007 I Think I Love My Wife was, of all things, an Americanized remake of Eric Rohmer’s Chloe In the Afternoon.  He received raves for his TV series Everybody Hates Chris, but it aired on UPN in the era before “niche” became a TV compliment.  Finally, with TOP FIVE, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and has become its first sensation (several studios are reportedly bidding furiously for its distribution rights), Rock has achieved his breakthrough as a writer, director and actor.

Top Five owes a debt to Allen, and also to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (it may not be a coincidence that Rock worked recently with Julie Delpy on her own 2 Days In New York), but its triumph and tone are all Rock’s.  It’s structured, like the Before movies, around a single day and a marathon running conversation between a man and a woman, in this case Andre Allen (Rock) and Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson).  He’s a successful former stand-up and comedy franchise movie star (he either played a cop who’s a bear or one who’s a man in a bear suit) who’s attempting to establish himself as a more serious performer with a drama about the abortive Haitian slave revolution, and is also a few days away from his TV-event marriage to reality star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union).  She’s the NY Times journalist tailing him for the day so she can write a feature about him.

Over the course of the day, Andre takes Chelsea to the projects where he grew up, to the press junket and radio interviews he’s doing for his film and elsewhere, and each of them finds themselves telling the other increasingly intimate stories about their lives and how they’re arrived where they are.  (It’s in the fluidity of tone and chronology that Rock’s film recalls the Allen of Annie Hall days.)   Top Five is at times outrageously funny in a strongly R-rated way (there’s a classic sequence where Chelsea recalls the reasons she should have been suspicious about her current boyfriend’s desires), and then extremely serious.  These aren’t easy hair-pin turns for a script to make, but by and large Rock pulls them off (there’s one important twist regarding Chelsea that may be a bit too unlikely on any realistic level), and it’s clear by the end of the movie that he’s been carefully structuring his tale all along to peak exactly where it does.  Even his ending hits just the right note.

Although there are many other characters in Top Five, the movie rests on the strength of its main characters and the actors who play them.  In some of his previous performances, Rock has seemed forced when he tried to bring a serious undertone to a character, but he’s completely assured as Andre.  And Dawson, who runs the risk of being overlooked considering the many hats Rock is wearing alongside her, does some of the most centered, likable, complex work of her career.  The performances in Rock’s other films weren’t particularly notable, but suddenly he’s an accomplished director of others, getting great work from J.B. Smoove as Andre’s best friend and assistant, Union, and a variety of sometimes inspired cameos from (among many others) Tracy Morgan, Ben Vereen, Kevin Hart and Jerry Seinfeld.

One of the keys to Top Five‘s success may be that it’s the first time Rock has been able to blend his stand-up voice into his screen persona.  The open-ended structure of the script allows Andre to deliver his views on everything from current politics to Hollywood to hip-hop history (the title refers to lists its characters are asked to provide of the best rappers ever), and that gives Rock an opportunity to sprinkle his performance with comic monologues.  But Top Five is more than a “best of” Chris Rock in concert.  Chelsea has views as strong as Andre’s, and Rock uses the one-liners to build characters and plot.  Although there are many famed improvisers in Rock’s cast, he doesn’t indulge them–one never ges the feeling that the actors spent their days playing “Can You Top This?” with their punchlines, as is often the case with other comedy ensembles these days.

Top Five isn’t just an actors’  piece, either.  It’s been beautifully shot on NY locations by Manuel Alberto Claro, a favorite cinematographer of Lars von Trier’s, and Anne McCabe handled what must have been a challenging collection of footage to edit.  The lively score is by Ludwig Goransson.

Top Five puts Chris Rock where he wants to be, worthy of being taken seriously not just as a comic, but as a creative artist.  Staying at that level, of course, is even harder than getting there, and we’ll find out soon enough if this is his one inspired effort, or if he’s just getting started.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."