Thursday, December 18, 2014

A King of Comedy: TOP FIVE

Sometimes a movie’s just a movie. That’s what Chris Rock has a character say in the opening seconds of Top Five. But it’s tempting to read the movie, which he wrote, directed, and gave himself the lead role in, as semi-autobiographical. The story follows a celebrity comedian who was a big hit on the standup circuit, went to Hollywood making dumb comedies, and now would rather be taken seriously, a difficult change to make mid-career. Is that reminiscent of Rock? Sure. But it’s also anyone who got a start in the public consciousness as a professional jokester and wants to grow as an artist, maybe in ways a fanbase isn’t willing to follow. Even though questions of showbiz’s gilded cage are the trappings of Top Five’s scenario, Rock’s opening statement is essentially a reassurance to the movie audience. Relax. Enjoy. Sometimes a movie is just a movie. Don’t read into it. Of course, the statement is immediately challenged back by another character in the scene, setting up the push and pull of the experience that wants its bite and lightness, too. The movie’s pleasant enough to make that work.

Rock plays Andre Allen, a man suffering through a confluence of anxiety-provoking events. After three wildly successful terrible comedies in which he played a grizzly bear police officer, his first attempt at a serious drama, a film about a Haitian slave uprising, is in the process of flopping. Reviews are terrible and audience awareness is low. His wedding to a reality show star (Gabrielle Union), micromanaged by her handler (Romany Malco), is days away. It’s enough to drive the four-years-sober comedian to eye booze with a needy look. In New York City for a whirlwind press tour before his bachelor party, a reporter for the Times (Rosario Dawson, making the most of a rare chance to shine) wants to follow him around all day for a profile. That’s certainly not bringing his stress level down. Rock’s screenplay successfully builds a feeling of overwhelmed irritation as Allen races through his day, trading one full plate for another, trying to keep them spinning.

But perhaps the real trick of the movie is how loose and casual it feels despite the character’s pressure cooker day. Allen can’t wander down the street without people shouting his name. Career demands are crashing in around him. He’s on edge, but that’s what’s so nice about having a fun person to talk to. Rock and Dawson have charming chemistry as they wander from limos and press junkets to nightclubs and dive bars. It’s a flirtatious bounce that drives the movie, a mixture of real attraction and professional interest. Sure, they’re both seeing other people, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to hang out. Anyway, the movie stacks the deck against their current relationships, making their others standard, thinly drawn romantic comedy Bad Matches.

The movie starts as a self-critical artistic struggle story a la Stardust Memories, and then slowly turns into a sugary rom-com, or rather reveals that those were its intentions all along. The result is shaggy and unhurried, often pleasant, sometimes honest, usually charming. An episodic collection of moments from a day in the life heading towards a sly rom-com conclusion, Rock’s the focus of every moment. But he’s generous enough to turn over whole scenes to the talented ensemble he’s assembled. We meet Andre Allen’s bodyguard (J.B. Smoove), his agent (Kevin Hart), a group of old friends who knew him before fame (Sherri Shepherd, Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones, Hassan Johnson), a gross pimp (Cedric the Entertainer), and a handful of cameos too good to spoil.

Top Five is almost sharp and thoughtful about the ways showbiz boxes entertainers into one skill set, how difficult it is to assert individuality when the public refuses to see the real you inside. But the movie decides it’d rather be warm, gooey, and pleasant. The result is a likably modest hangout movie, loose, talky, largely sweet but for a few staggeringly dirty moments. Big on personality, short on insight, the movie’s content to suggest larger topics and then goof around just outside them. And I enjoyed it while it did.

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