Saturday, 21 March 2015

Movie Review: Top Five (2015)

As a means to prove that comedy isn’t exactly equal across all fields, not every comedian that branches out into becoming an actor succeeds. I mean, for every Robin Williams who manages to not only succeed but succeed beyond the realm of comedic works, we get a Larry The Cable Guy who manages to make people miss their already lame stand-up with the cesspool-quality acting they bring to the big screen. Not to say that the best stand-up comedians are immune from making crap; as much as I love Robin Williams’ great films, he made his fair share of bombs back in the day. So, when news hit that Chris Rock, someone who fits nicely in my top five favourite stand-ups and who has a pretty shaky filmography himself, was releasing another film that he directed and also wrote on his own, I can be forgiven for being a bit worried. Time to see how it actually turned out. This is Top Five.

The plot: Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is an actor and former stand-up comedian. After seeing success with the Hammy The Bear series of films, he wants to start being taken seriously and stars in the more dramatic film Uprize. While doing publicity for the film and setting up for his highly publicized wedding to his reality star fiancée Erica (Gabrielle Union), he is interviewed by New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a fan of his from his stand-up days. As the interview goes on, Andre confesses to his on-going problem with alcoholism, and with Uprize not doing as well as he’d hoped and everyone wanting him to do more Hammy The Bear, he finds himself confronted with a big question: Can he still be funny sober?

The cast is filled with some pretty notable names in stand-up comedy, both past and present. For a start, we have Chris Rock himself in prime form, finally having found an outlet where he can properly translate his no-holds-barred persona to the big screen that works unlike… well, every other film where he’s played a stand-up comedian. Cedric The Entertainer has a good run as the cocky and kind of disgustingly hilarious Jazzy Dee, contributing to one of the few bits of gross-out humour of late that has actually worked. Tracy Morgan, a comedian I’m not that fussed about, and Kevin Hart, whose disdain I have for is well-documented by this point, both pull off decent performances but that might be because of the wise move to give them smaller roles. J.B. Smoove as Silk, Andre’s assistant, is goofy and loveable in that semi-pathetic kind of way and makes for a good foil for Rock when they together. Later on in the film, we also get cameos from three veterans comedians who party with Andre in a strip club: Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld. Whoopi Goldberg serves as a good mediator for this scene, delivering sound advice to fit the plot. Adam Sandler, with just one reaction, gets some of the biggest laughs he’s gotten in years, although his inclusion is a little bizarre given how I swear there’s a not-so-subtle jab at him in an earlier scene. The bona fide winner, however, is Seinfeld, who is so strangely in his element in the scene, giving jocular advice on infidelity and talking with strip club bouncers, that he makes for the acting highlight of the movie.

We have Chris Rock writing the script, and with no Louis C.K. kicking around this time, Chris is actually given a chance to be funny and he takes full advantage of it. The plot moves in a very vignette style, comprised of quite a few narrated stories from Andre and others. These moments are where we see Rock’s stand-up material given full flight and makes for some damn good comedy: Whether it’s the drunken threesome or Chelsea discussing her boyfriend, it never fails to crack me up. That’s not to say that this film is all mirth and no matter, because this is a script that has some serious teeth to it. When it isn’t essentially lacerating the Hollywood system, the critics, racial sensibilities, reality television or just the art of comedy in general, it focuses mainly on answering the sobriety question along with the old “Can a clown be taken seriously?” bit. With the former, Andre’s character arc in that regard is very well-executed, portraying his drunken lows with a lot of humour while not shying away from the stark depression that such experiences can have. It’s like how all tragedies can become funny in time; it doesn’t stop them from being tragedies in the first place. Throughout the film, we see Andre trying to maintain his sobriety while working hard to get his new film to turn in a profit and get people to stop pestering him about being Hammy, culminating in quite possibly one of the most cathartic moments captured on film. I won’t dare spoil it, but it’s a great example of the kind of scenes that make me want to watch movies at all; it’s that good. When it comes to answering the question, *SPOILERS* in the scene where Andre actually performs a stand-up routine, not only does it show that the answer is a resounding yes, but it also serves as a great mind clearing moment for the character through some choice subject matter for his jokes.
In terms of the latter question about being taken seriously, it’s handled with far less optimism, going instead with the refreshingly honest answer that maybe some people should stick to what they know best, portrayed in a rather surreal yet entertaining manner through a surprise cameo. Now, while this idea has merit to it, without a doubt, it would ring truer to my ears if I hadn’t already seen my fair share of comedians step outside their comfort zone and do some pretty good dramatic works, like the aforementioned Robin Williams and even Jim Carrey on occasion. Not to say that it’s by any means bad, just that it’s a case-by-case basis.

Then there’s the matter of the title and how it factors into the film itself, and this is where things get really get interesting for me. Chris Rock has a very well-publicized love for hip-hop and it shows quite a lot here with the leitmotif of him discussing with friends and colleagues what their top five favourite rappers are. It even extends into Andre’s discussion about other comedians, calling Charlie Chaplin the KRS-One of comedy. Now, while this could be just a simple dialogue quirk to add flavor to the overall script, there seems to be something in the subtext on this one. This might just be my own strained readings, but I saw the whole top five thing as a sign of trust between characters; these sort of discussions about who are the greatest MCs or what was the doper posse track only really spring in circles of good friends who all happen to be hip-hop heads. The scene where Chelsea says her own top five best illustrates this and makes for a pretty good film moment as well. And then there’s Seinfeld spouting his own list during the credits, which further cements his status as the best thing about this movie. The fixation of rap music extends to behind the scenes as well as Questlove, the drummer and main producer for indie favourite The Roots, is music supervisor this time around, bringing a lot of classic tunes by guys like Ghostface Killah, DMX and Public Enemy. He also composed the film score alongside Childish Gambino’s partner in production crime Ludwig Göransson, and it all sounds sweet. And while we’re on the subject of rappers, this is officially the first film I’ve seen Jay-Z produce that doesn’t suck on toast; must be Kanye once again bringing out the best in him, as he also co-produces this. Probably explains the use of their song Niggas In Paris as a musical motif, but then again that song works really well with Andre's character arc anyway.

All in all, this deals with similar subject matter as Birdman, only with more of an emphasis on comedy in both tone and focus. The cast all do outstanding, with Chris Rock delivering major laughs throughout, the writing has a couple of moments I could nitpick such as some parts of the relationship development, but for the most part it’s funny, clever and very poignant, and the soundtrack is a god-send for major hip-hop heads like myself. One quote I see used in a lot of the ads is that this the movie that Chris Rock was born to make, and I couldn’t agree more. I rank it higher than Selma, as I felt a much deeper connection with the main character this time around, but by that same token this isn’t as good as Wild, where the technical aspects did that even better. In either case, this gets a wholehearted recommendation.


Oh, and for the record: Black Thought from The Roots, Aesop Rock, Brother Ali, DOOM and Busta Rhymes, with Slug from Atmosphere as my sixth man. Yeah, I’m a bit of a backpacker as well as a Rhymesayers junkie.

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