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TOP FIVE starts a little out of chronological sequence with two protagonists walking down a Manhattan sidewalk discussing art and life. Specifically art versus life with one opining that a movie is just a movie while the other disagrees. The man, as we will shortly learn, is Andre Allen (Chris Rock), superstar funnyman and recovering alcoholic. The woman is Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a reporter for the New York Times who is doing a profile of the entertainer on the opening day his new movie, the one he hopes will make audiences take him seriously. What follows is a labyrinthine day in Andre’s life, in which his past invades his present, the truth of his present confronts his carefully constructed reality, and his future hinges on how he handles them both.
Having made his name in comedies dressed in a bear suit, Andre longs for respect, hence his latest opus starring in a historical drama recounting the 18lth-century Haitian slave uprising. His day of press junkets and radio appearances are more about his upcoming nuptials to a reality television star (Gabrielle Union), and answering boneheaded questions about why he doesn’t want to be funny anymore. Yes, it bears a passing resemblance to another comedian’s cinematic existential crisis, that would be Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES, and, yes, it can’t be much of a coincidence that Andre’s last name is also Allen, yet, as Tolstoy said of unhappy families, each is unique in its unhappiness, and so it is with Andre. Rock, who also wrote and directed, is commenting as much on popular culture as he is about his own putative desire to be taken seriously, and a big part of that commentary has to do with why drama is given more respect that comedy. His exploration is as ribald and rowdy as the worst of pop culture, and as smart and insightful as the best criticism.
Forced by his agent to spend the day with Chelsea, Andre is eventually won over by her frankness, telling her about how he hit bottom in Houston with a shady promoter (Cedric the Entertainer), how his reality-star fiancée helped him get sober, and taking the reporter along to a bittersweet family reunion, featuring Tracy Morgan in one of his last performances before his accident. Of course they end up getting involved in each other’s lives more than they expected, or wanted, to. Trite as a plot point, of course, but the rough edges around these characters make it anything but a sure thing.
TOP FIVE, it refers to the sporadic listmaking of best rappers done by the characters, ultimately eschews questions of funny or dramatic in favor of whether entertainment is good or bad, and if that were where it ended, it would still be a terrific film. Rock, however, goes further, examining the personas we create for ourselves that in turn define us, the egos that get in our way, and the complicated reasons for the bad faith actions we take. There is both nuance and insight into these characters, but make no mistake, this is a very funny film. Jerry Seinfeld in a strip club would be worth the price of admission alone, but it’s just a grace note to the sly blend of comedy and tragedy that punctuates Andre’s life as he reacts badly to a beer ad, or reacts to the unorthodox use of a feminine hygiene product not just absurdly funny, but also poetically righteous. Rock has made a film about truth, and its implications both terrifying and comforting. It works because he is as unsparing of himself as he is of others, maybe even moreso, and because he is fearless in exposing his insecurities, or that of his character at least, brave enough to laugh at himself as heartily as he wants us to.