Over the last few decades or so, there seems to be very few performers who have been able to successfully make the transition from stand-up or sketch comedy into motion pictures. By successfully, I mean translating the style and personality that has made them so popular in the first place into entertaining characters and narratives on screen. Obviously there are exceptions – such as Bill Murray – but for whatever reason, hilariously funny comedy performers have generally been unable to replicate their greatness in films, at least with any kind of consistency. Of course, comedians have featured prominently in hugely successful movies (the likes of Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell spring to mind), but they have often had to compromise aspects of their comedic persona in doing so or simply rehash the same character types time and time again. I mean, Murphy has yet to make a film anywhere near as funny as his classic Raw or Delirious stand-up shows and Chris Rock is another great comedy performer who has failed to replicate his stand-up success in movies. There is no doubt that Rock is a very funny man, yet his film performances have, until now, failed to capture or capitalise upon his gifts as a comedian. With his latest film Top Five, Rock goes some way to rectifying that with a film that is both funny and thought-provoking in its examination of this very issue.
Essentially playing a version of himself, Rock is Andre Allen, a famed stand-up performer who has transitioned to Hollywood as the star of a series of ridiculous cop movies – the premise of which I won’t give away here – that have left him feeling somewhat unfulfilled. His attempt to move into more serious roles has been met with derision by critics and audiences alike and he is about to marry a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) who, by her own admission, needs the wedding and the associated media circus (televised ceremony, celebrity guest list, network-sponsored bachelor party) that goes with it because she ‘has no talent’ to otherwise find the fame she so desperately seeks. A recovering alcoholic, Allen is at a crossroads when he reluctantly accedes to an interview with New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) that ultimately forces him to confront the comedy career that he has seemingly left behind.
Essentially, the narrative comprises Andre and Chelsea walking and talking. Initially resistant to revealing too much about himself, Andre lets his guard down and introduces Chelsea to the various people and places of significance in his life. We follow Andre and Chelsea as they stroll the streets of New York, their wanderings interspersed with flashbacks as both characters reflect on key moments from their past. This is a simple idea executed very well due to great performances from both leads. Dawson (Trance) is an actress willing to tackle edgy material and almost always delivers strong performances, while this is possibly Rock’s best film performance yet, even though he seems at his most comfortable during the brief stand-up routine he delivers late in the film when Chelsea and Andre visit a comedy club. Whilst there are plenty of laughs to be had, Top Five also explores the contradictions and insecurities that plague such performers, exemplified by an interaction between Andre and his father (played by Broadway legend Ben Vereen) in which Andre becomes the brunt of the jokes and doesn’t like it at all.
As Andre’s minder, right hand man and best friend Silk, JB Smoove is an amusing presence, while Cedric the Entertainer features as the over-the-top Jazzy Dee. Not surprisingly given Rock’s status within the comedy world, there are cameos galore from rappers and fellow comedians, many of whom are literally playing themselves. With Take Five, the 50-year-old Rock, who also wrote and directed, has delivered a film that comes closer to the hard-hitting, irreverent comedy his fans love more so than anything he has done previously, all the while delivering a film that explores the artifice of celebrity, racial politics, relationships, the battle to beat addiction and the conflicting expectations of performers and their audiences. Authentic and hilarious, Top Five may just be Chris Rock’s best movie so far.