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Top Five

D: Chris Rock / 102m

Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, JB Smoove, Gabrielle Union, Romany Malco, Cedric the Entertainer, Anders Holm, Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Sherri Shepherd, Jay Pharaoh, Ben Vereen, Kevin Hart, Luis Guzmán, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, DMX, Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe

Andre Allen (Rock) is a stand-up comedian whose move into movies has brought him international fame thanks to the Hammy trilogy where he plays a cop in a bear costume. Wanting to put the Hammy movies behind him and focus on more serious projects – his latest movie, Uprize, is about the slave revolt that began in Haiti in 1791 – Andre is also a recovering alcoholic and about to get married to reality TV star Erica Long (Union).With only a couple of days to go before the wedding, Andre agrees to an interview with the New York Times’ Chelsea Brown (Dawson).

The interview gets off to a poor start when Chelsea asks him a banal question that prompts him to challenge her to ask the questions she really wants to ask. She wants to know when he stopped being funny and why, and about his alcoholism. He tells her about the time he hit bottom, in 2003 on a trip to Houston, where a night of sex and drugs with a couple of prostitutes (and the unexpected involvement of his tour promoter) led to accusations of rape and his being arrested. He also credits Erica with helping him achieve sobriety and stay that way.

As the interview continues, Andre introduces Chelsea to some of his friends. He’s relaxed with them, and they all joke that he’s never been funny and still isn’t. At a press conference for Uprize, Andre is chagrined to hear calls for another Hammy the Bear movie. He and Chelsea stop off at a hotel so she can meet up with her boyfriend, Brad (Holm), whose birthday it is. Unfortunately, she discovers that Brad has been hiding the fact that he’s gay (despite some very obvious clues in their sex life). Upset and angry at being so easily duped, she’s less than happy when Andre expresses his disbelief at how naïve she’s been. They argue, but the argument leads to their kissing and ending up in a club bathroom about to have sex. They manage to stop themselves; Andre asks to borrow Chelsea’s phone to make a call. While he does he discovers that she is actually James Nielson. He confronts her. Chelsea admits to the deception but tries to explain that she does like him and that she regrets not having told him sooner. Andre refuses to accept her explanation and leaves her behind in the club. From there he goes to a convenience store where he gives in to temptation and starts drinking again…

Top Five - scene

A romantic comedy that weaves in some interesting dramatic elements, Top Five is an astute, cleverly constructed movie that shows Rock firing on all cylinders and mixing gross-out comedy with intelligent observations on fame and media exposure, as well as trenchant examinations of modern day relationships and their ups and downs. It’s a confident movie, unafraid to take a few risks, and Rock proves he has a gift for exposing some of the more absurd aspects of his profession, in particular the fame that can be gained from a movie trilogy based around the exploits of a cop in a bear costume (“It’s Hammy time!”).

He’s also more than adroit at creating a romance between Andre and Chelsea that anchors the movie and proves far more affecting than expected. Partly this is due to his script, which for the most part tries hard to avoid becoming standard romantic fare (though it follows an established formula), and the obvious chemistry he has with Dawson. As they travel the streets of New York, challenging each other, debating, laughing, supporting each other, the warmth and growing affection they feel for each other is so charmingly done that you find yourself rooting for them. As it becomes clear that their existing relationships are less than satisfactory, their slow pull towards each other becomes as rewarding for the viewer as it is for them. Dawson is always an appealing presence on screen, and here she proves a great foil for Rock’s often acerbic approach to his own material.

Of course, this being a Chris Rock movie, the focus is as much on the comedy as the romance, and here he succeeds in providing a slew of laugh-out-loud moments, from Cedric the Entertainer’s unexpected “party trick” to Andre and Chelsea’s discussion on the requirements for becoming the next President, to Chelsea’s punishment of Brad’s anal fixation, to Andre’s bodyguard Silk (Smoove) and his penchant for the larger lady (his encounter with Sidibe is brief but wonderful), to Andre’s adding “stank” to a radio promo – Rock maintains a high hit rate throughout. He also infuses several dramatic moments with a level of humour that adds poignancy and pathos to the material, and gives the likes of Union and Shepherd a chance to shine in scenes that hold a lot more weight than is immediately apparent.

While Rock scores highly with his script, and employs a cast who all make the most of their roles (and are clearly having a great deal of fun in the process), he’s not quite as successful in creating a visual palette that elevates or enlivens the material, and certain scenes have a perfunctory feel about them as a result (DoP Manuel Alberto Clara worked on Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac Vol. I & Vol. II and there are many similarities in style between those movies and this one). That said, there are some occasional moments – Andre’s impromptu appearance at a comedy club, the scene where Andre trashes the convenience store – where the visual approach works in the movie’s favour.

All in all though, Top Five is a movie that provides much to enjoy and admire, and serves as a reminder that when he puts his mind to it, Rock is one of the more gifted comedians working in movies today (it’s also amazing to think that he’s only recently turned 50; he definitely doesn’t look it). Let’s hope this is just the first of many more similar projects to come.

Rating: 8/10 – a disarmingly enjoyable romantic comedy, Top Five benefits greatly from its charming central romance and Rock’s willingness to offset the comedy with telling moments of drama; a winning return to form after the less than successful I Think I Love My Wife (2007), this has something for everyone and rarely disappoints.