Bawdy Sophistication, In-Jokes and Cameos Galore in Chris Rock’s Top Five

Top Five

Chris Rock’s stand-up prowess and HBO boundary ripping hilarity never successfully translated to the big screen where, to be honest, his most memorable work was his voice-overs in the Madagascar series.  So here he is now, in the beginning of middle-age, trying to get his groove back by writing, directing and starring in Top Five.

Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is a recovering alcoholic and former stand-up comic who has decreed he wants to be taken seriously now after years of staring as a wise-cracking bear-suited cop in the idiotically successful Hammy the Bear series.  His first serious film, the Haitian slave-revolt biopic Uprising, is hitting theaters just as his marriage to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) is set to air on Bravo.  On the fateful day before his bachelor party, a NY Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) follows him around NYC for an in-depth interview.  Along the way the pair riff on life, love, politics and pop culture while making pit stops in Allen’s old hood to meet the family and friends he left behind as he climbed the ladder out of the ghetto and into Hollywood stardom.  The cast features great turns in small roles from some of my favorite comedians including Tracy Morgan and J.B. Smoove, as well as countless cameos –  some of which (DMX singing “Smile”) work, and some of which (Adam Sandler doling out marriage tips) don’t.  There’s also a “watch out, world, here she comes!” spin from Leslie Jones who proves she’s waaaay funnier than her strained bits on the current season of SNL.

Despite its obvious eschewing of the entertainment business and celebrities and its tenuous parallels to Rock’s own career, Top Five miraculously avoids becoming an insular cell of wall-to-wall in-jokes (though there are plenty).  For most of its cameo-laden run-time, it’s actually a sophisticated romantic comedy where Dawson’s character has her own ulterior motives that lead to enjoyable banter and palpable chemistry.  Both leads relish in bouncing off each other’s energy with Rock finally fulfilling the promise he has always shown and Dawson fulfilling the promise she showed over a decade ago in such films as Sidewalks of New York and 25th Hour.  As fabricated as their “all in the same day” whirlwind tour of the city becomes, you root for something real to take root because the two are so engaging and delightful to watch.

But here’s the thing about Top Five – Rock peppers (or shall we say…hot-sauces) the sophisticated banter with bawdy and raucous flashbacks of each character hitting their own kind of rock-bottom where we are bombarded with physical and sexual slapstick while the film pushes the limits of good taste.  Rock seems to be commenting on the sequences’ ridiculousness – witness the hilarious facial expressions he employs in the cringe-worthy climax to the flashback involving Cedric the Entertainer – yet the sequences are there in all their gross-out humor glory and will likely be the most memorable parts of the film for many members of the audience.

Bawdy sophistication is hard to pull off.  You can’t show the censor-baiting over-the-top bits in trailers, nor can 30-second clips capture the casual cool and engaging flow of Rock and Dawson just walking and talking.  Top Five thus becomes a hard sell, and those who do take a chance on it run the risk of being alienated one way or the other depending on their tastes in humor.  Yet somehow the film still works in similar ways as Bridesmaids did, as both films are smart comedies wrapped in dirty jokes.  Top Five might never reach the peaks of the best of Rock’s stand-up or his HBO show, but it’s a strong effort and rivals Jenny Slate’s Obvious Child for best comedy of 2014.

You can’t blame Rock for, and have to appreciate that, he’s firing on all cylinders and in all directions.  The film features a recurring motif where characters name their Top Five rap artists of all time as well as a modern Cinderella theme woven into the lead story’s fabric, both of which come to a head in the film’s closing moments (for the record, I kinda agree with Dawson’s picks).  In the end Rock seems to be saying it’s not about having it all…or even your top five…it’s about having that one.  It’s a charmingly old-fashioned notion surrounded by cutting edges.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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6 comments on “Bawdy Sophistication, In-Jokes and Cameos Galore in Chris Rock’s Top Five

  1. Inspired by the movie, anyone want to share and discuss their Top Five Stand-up Comedians of all time?

    Here’s my Top Five of Stand-up:

    George Carlin
    Robin Williams
    Chris Rock
    Don Rickles
    Sarah Silverman

    And my sixth man would be Dana Carvey (I still say that stand-up special where he sang “Chopping Broccoli” is maybe my favorite comedy special of all-time)

    My back-ups would be: Eddie Izzard, Paul Mooney, Bill Maher, Tracy Morgan, Bernie Mac, and Lisa Lampanelli

    Rising Fast: Amy Schumer

    Sorry, guys – was just never into Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor (though I get the appeal)

  2. catalystpoet says:

    Started reading the review, but going to wait until I see the movie next week to finish. My favorite 5 standup comedians would probably be: Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Redd Foxx, and Louis CK. My sixth would probably be between George Carlin and DL Hughley. I love how Richard Pryor tells stories and has a deep honesty. I love Seinfeld’s teasing of the observation and how he’s able to maintain a character who feels arrogant, but in the way we are all arrogant so it’s not a turnoff. Robin Williams manic and broad character nature also appeals to me; his energy was simply unmatched. I did like Sam Kinison, tho. Redd Foxx was hilarious and had so much showmanship; he was able to give a royal air to the phenomenally dirty. Louis CK is a master of doing what I believe all art should do: show humanity’s ugliness and offers ways we can correct it but without being didactic–partly because he’s crafted this sorta pathetic asshole character to illuminate this all so it works in a way that it is different from Carlin or Hughley (who I like for some of the same reasons). I like Don Rickles, Amy Schumer, and Bernie Mac as well. Sarah Silverman, Lisa Lampanelli, Paul Mooney, Tracy Morgan, and Bill Maher are too inconsistent for me. I like them all at their best, but their worst is just too bad for me. Five of my favorite rising (or risen) comedians are: Nikki Glaser, Aziz Ansari, Hanibal Burress, Kevin Hart, and Donald Glover. Alonzo Boden would be the wild card. I like Eddie Murphy and his standup, but he wouldn’t make my top list, though. Same with Chris Rock. He’s hilarious and consistent, but not one of my favorites. Mad respect. He’s probably the comedian I’d most want to hangout with.

    • I forgot about Aziz Ansari – he is very consistent thus far and hasn’t been overexposed….yet.

      • catalystpoet says:

        Haha, true. The three I did forget were: Dave Chappelle, Bill Cosby, and Rodney Dangerfield. Wow. Chappelle can just talk for hours and his insights are hilarious. Who knows if he’s doing material anymore. I saw him again last year, and I’m pretty sure he made most of it up that night. There is no universe where Bill Cosby is not a Top 5 Comedian. Again, even two years ago, saw him live and he was still ridiculously sharp and funny.

        • Oh man, I forgot Chappelle too! That’s what happens when you willingly drop off the face of the earth! His Comedy Central show was the best. And poor Rodney Dangerfield…still getting no respect. Cosby is hard to separate from the dark shadows of his current predicament, but I can’t argue against him being one of the best at his craft.

  3. […] If you like romantic comedies, you’ll like this and think it’s edgier than most, although it missed a shot at being as lively and breezy and truly edgy as Chris Rock’s Top Five. […]

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