by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
The best film comedy should make the viewer uncomfortable. It should get them to think about ideas and points of view outside their comfort zone. It should take chances, should go into territories that push buttons and very well could cross the line. It should know where too far is, but it shouldn't state exactly what that point on the map might be upfront, leaving the viewer continually on edge as to if - or when - things might go horrifically off the rails. If you're not offended by something that's happened over the course of the picture's running time then the filmmakers have done something wrong, just how much you've been offended going to be the dividing line between whether or not you end up thinking the movie as a whole has been worth one's precious time.
Chris Rock's Top Five made me furious. Brutally so, asking me to laugh at things that went so far beyond the pale at one point I was fairly certain I did two or three spit takes in reaction to some of what was being said, discussed and laughed at. There were a couple moments where I was fairly certain I wanted to throw something at the screen, and I can't say every bit of what the filmmaker was choosing to show me I was even slightly okay with.
And, you know what? That's okay. Because, wouldn't you know it, Rock has done and crafted a smart, skillfully structured comedy of verbal wit and energetic fervor that is remarkably unafraid of the repercussions if at any given second someone says the wrong thing. Channeling Woody Allen, doing his best Richard Linklater meets John Cassavetes impression, the comedian turned actor turned writer turned director (this is his third effort behind the camera, Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife being the other two) has finally ascended to the next level. I'm not going to mince words, flaws and all, even with segments that offend, Top Five is incredible, and in many ways is the best comedy released by a major studio in 2014.
The film chronicles a day in the life of Hollywood superstar and former standup comedy sensation Andre Allen (Rock) as he navigates the streets of New York doing publicity for his new movie, a drama based on a Haitian slave uprising. On top of juggling various junket interviews, he also has to deal with events surrounding his impending marriage to reality television star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). Topping it off, he's also supposed to shepherd New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) around town, giving her an inside look at his life he's never given anyone, especially a journalist, up until now.
That's it. That's all there is, the whole movie a series of conversations, most of them between Andre and Chelsea, as the two of them discuss their loves, careers, families and everything in-between. They get insights into one another's lives allowing them to make a deep connection in a relatively brief amount of time, talking about things that are relatable and intimate no matter what a person's race or skin color might be. It's witty, sharp, prescient and far more profound than one would ever anticipate beforehand, giving the movie a deeply poignant resonance that goes well beyond the laughs.
As for those laughs, there are indeed plenty of them, Rock populating his film with a bevy of talented entertainers and comedians who are all at the top of their respective games. More than that, though, they're all willing to allow themselves to be showcased in less than stellar light, everyone reflecting differing shades of grey, allowing them to become more three-dimensional, more human, no matter how brief their respective screen time might prove to be. Tracy Morgan, Kevin Hart, Cedric the Entertainer, J.B. Smoove, Sherri Shepherd, Leslie Jones, all of them and more impact the proceedings in ways that constantly surprise, allowing the film to construct a sense of innate realism and authenticity that's astonishing.
Issues do arise. Union's reality starlet, while having a couple of unexpected moments of depth, is by and large the most underrated principal character, her shrill neediness becoming more and more obnoxious as things progress. More egregiously, Rock writes Dawson into a corner she's almost unable to crawl herself out of, Chelsea in some respects the least believable, most ethically challenged depiction of a New York Times reporter in cinema history. She has secrets that, while not as shocking as I'm sure they're intended to be, call far more attention to themselves than they should, and it's doubtful any newspaper anywhere, no matter how dubious its standards might be, would employ anyone who engages in the types of subterfuge she - intentionally or not - ends up trafficking in.
Then, there's that stuff that made me angry. There are admittedly a couple of subplots I found decidedly uncomfortable, most notably one involving the sexual inclinations of a primary character's significant other. Thing is, as retro as portions of this facet of the narrative sometimes felt, it's hard to tell if this brief tangent is offensively homophobic or refreshingly open-minded, leaving it entirely up to the audience to figure things out themselves. Andre and Chelsea's reaction to this revelation isn't as depressing as it initially seems, the two engaging in a thought-provoking conversation about sex and sexuality that might not have been possible without the moderately stereotypical preamble into it.
It's Rock's willingness to tread in uncertain water that ultimately makes his third directorial outing such a success. While not up to the standards of say Allen's Annie Hall or Cassavetes' Faces, while not achieving the same breathless immediacy of Linklater's Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, or Before Midnight, the film nonetheless shows the former standup doing something amazing. The movie is personal, heartfelt and undeniably candid. More than that, it's also very, very funny, each laugh checkered with mind-blowing insights allowing Top Five to resonate on a deep, almost soulful level I responded to heart, body and, most of all, soul.
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