It’s not that Chris Rock‘s “Top Five” — the stand-up comedian’s third film as writer-director — isn’t funny. It is, whether in quick, sharp jabs pronounced by individual characters or in the ping-pong exchanges between them. The problem comes when Rock tries to do more than that, when his story takes on any more depth than it has in the shambling, ambling conversations between Rock’s character, Andre Allen, and every other supporting character.
The set-up couldn’t be simpler: The day of the release of his latest, so-serious-it-hurts historical drama “Uprize” (about the Haitian slave rebellion) the in-recovery Andre is preparing for his next-day wedding to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) while also tackling press duties. He’s also being tailed by New York Times interviewer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) for a profile, even though the Times’ unseen and unkind film critic has had a vendetta against Andre and his work for years. Andre doesn’t want to be funny anymore; the problem is that he doesn’t know what else to be. And the stakes are high: as Andre’s agent (Kevin Hart) notes, “If this film flops, we could be talking ‘Dancing with the Stars.'”
Comparisons to Woody Allen‘s “Stardust Memories” are inevitable; indeed, with Andre’s last name, Rock seems to be asking for them. But on its own, “Top Five” is a funny but frustrating film, one where every laugh involves playing along with Rock’s infuriatingly lazy script. You don’t have to be a showbiz insider — agent or interviewer, film producer or film critic — to recognize Rock’s screenplay creates a world for itself as fantastic and far-fetched as anything in “Interstellar” or “Maleficent.” You just have to be alert and aware.
This is a film where the press junket for a film takes place not the days or weeks beforehand but, rather, on the day of release. It’s a film where, as the camera goes into a comedy club and takes in the photos of the luminaries who’ve performed there, you can clearly see a piece of paper with “Andre Allen” typed on it taped over Rock’s actual name on the real photo.
The film’s most ruinous misstep comes in its big film-changing revelation, which will not be divulged here. But, like “Birdman,” “Top Five” rails with spit-flecked lips against critics and newspapers and pop-culture coverage while clearly not having any clue, or bothering to work to get one, about how those things actually work in the real world, preferring instead to set up straw-man sitting ducks for Rock’s shotgun salvoes of fury. These are but a few examples of the glaring errors between the giggles in the film; there are all too many more.
It’s a shame, then, that Rock couldn’t be bothered to write and film a script that didn’t shoot itself in the foot with its implausibilities and impossibilities, as the parts of it that are good are very good indeed. I’m not merely talking about the jokes — although those are extraordinary — but also the cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro (“Melancholia,” “Nymphomaniac”), which captures the beauty and realness of New York as a busy vision of that city at its best.
The editing by Anne McCabe (“Adventureland,” “Maria Full of Grace”) is also impressive, creating a sinuous timeline of scenes that looks and feels deceptively simple even as it leaps and bounces in non-linear fashion. The film’s title comes from Andre’s conversation-starter of asking friends and strangers alike who their top five rappers are — a variation on the “High Fidelity” riff of “It’s not what you’re like, it’s what you like” — but it’s a device that runs between the film’s scenes without ever really connecting them.
It’s hard to enjoy the editing when there’s a long sequence revolving around tee-hee homophobia that gets cheap, easy laughs. It’s hard to enjoy the cinematography as Rock and Dawson meander and share and fall for each other in a clearly pre-ordained romantic journey utterly lacking in dramatic tension, driven by contrivances and cheap shocks made out of phony falsehoods. (It’s a tribute to Dawson that even hamstrung by the script’s vision of her character, she still shines as brightly as she does.)
“Top Five” is that movie precisely so good and yet still so flawed that you can watch greatness slip out of its ambitious but awkward reach right in front of your eyes. With its show-biz satire blunted by the writer-director’s own writing and judgment, and its romance as obligatory as a comedy club’s two-drink minimum, “Top Five” may be Chris Rock‘s biggest and boldest film as a director and writer, but a sharper, smarter, realer script would have made it far more than just a lazy, lightweight laughfest.