Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Real Stand-Up Guy

Year: 2014
Director: Chris Rock
Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

With the cinema of diversity, there's always a line being toed. Top Five is part of a massively important movement in fringe Hollywood, allowing non-white performers to take major positions in front of and behind the camera. Their continued success is vital in paving the way for change in a rigidly biased economic and artistic system. That said, anybody of any race can make a film with wan comedy, meandering storylines, and an unskilled aesthetic, and that is unfortunately exactly what has happened here.

When your film literally opens with outtake footage, it's hard to care a tremendous amount about the structure of the rest of it.

Chris Rock's third directorial feature stars himself as Andre Allen, a washed-up comedian and recovering alcoholic who is struggling to turn his wacky film career in a more serious direction. His impending wedding to reality star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) is weighing on him, as an eternal commitment to a shallow materialist broadcast nationwide is wont to do. When he is paired up with Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a reporter with a heart of gold, they stroll around the New York streets together experiencing a series of comic-lite vignettes while she interviews him about his his career hopes, dreams, and fears.

Throughout their day together, Chelsea and Andre learn a lot about each other and their relationship deepens as they visit a series of cameos who pop in and out for a scene or two. There is the constant looming threat of the wedding two days from now and the bachelor party that night, but other than that there is next to no narrative drive at all. It's the Once of ensemble comedies.

It's perfectly fine for movies to be in this more relaxed register (read: Once), but the largely improvisational structure of Top Five leads to some jarring continuity in the editing, and the film as a whole really isn't funny enough to sustain the format for longer than ten minutes at a time. There are some pristine moments to be sure, including a series of interviews, a couple fantastic stars playing themselves, and any moment where Rock is actually allowed near a comedy stage, but the rest is tepid, blah, or grossly prejudiced.

You mean a movie about vapid reality stars, hoes, and closeted gays who just crave a good fingerbang is misogynistic and homophobic? What?

When it's not being actively gross or offensive (J. B. Smoove plays a character whose entire personality is based around him aggressively catcalling overweight women), it's indulging in underwhelming chatter between actors who have admittedly solid chemistry, but nothing much of interest to say. Most of these guest players are other stand-up comedians taking day trips to the set, with varying degrees of success.

Sherri Shepherd and Leslie Jones shine in brief roles, but Tracy Morgan looks like he's so bored, he decided to astrally project his consciousness to a theme park while he recited his lines. The leads are similarly mismatched. Rosario Dawson keeps the reality of the film in check with a solid, down-to-earth performance, but Chris Rock turns in a piece of work that I can only assume stems from a family crest that reads "When in doubt, bug out your eyes and shriek."

He settles into his role by the halfway point, as does the cinematography (which up until this point, leans heavily on a quasi-documentary handheld aesthetic that looks more like reality TV by way of the SyFy network), and the movie is generally more enthusiastic about its characters from that point on, but it's a slog to get there.

At least we can gaze upon Dawson's rad as hell haircut during the slower moments.

Perhaps one of the most inhibiting elements of the film is the score. When it's not endlessly repeating co-producers Jay-Z and Kanye West's single "N*ggas in Paris" like a surly white teen with tattoos on his knuckles is in charge of the jukebox, it's bleating music that wouldn't be out of place in a hotel elevator. I'm pretty sure I was put on hold to one of the songs when I called Jamba Juice customer service (don't ask). It reduces the tone of the whole thing to that of a crackerjack commercial.

It's a pleasant enough film to watch, but it's utterly inconsequential. The narrative beats are relentlessly predictable, nothing of much import happens, nothing of much humor is said, and even the title is halfhearted. "Top five" refers to a game Andre and his friends play in which they list their five favorite rappers. I imagine this particular diversion gets old after the first round, and it's a lackluster choice for the film's namesake.

Although perhaps it's perfect, because the film as a whole is pretty lackluster too.

TL;DR: Top Five is underwhelming, dull, and occasionally offensive, though it's not grating to watch.
Rating: 5/10
Should I Spend Money On This? I'd think not.
Word Count: 843

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