The comic centerpiece of Chris Rock’s extremely enjoyable Top Five is a sequence in which Andre Allen, the famous comedian played by Rock, takes journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) to the housing project where he grew up. (She’s writing a profile for the New York Times.) Back in Andre’s old neighborhood, Chelsea meets the friends and family Andre has known forever, and these old acquaintances are played by a murderer’s row of comic talent: Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharaoh, Michael Che, Sherri Shepherd, Hassan Johnson (aka Wee-Bey). Pharoah has said that Rock “put out a comedian’s signal in the sky like Batman” when casting the movie, which also features JB Smoove, Jerry Seinfeld, Brian Regan, and other great stand-ups. But what’s remarkable about the scene in the projects is not just how many funny people are assembled. It’s that, even given that collection of talent, the scene is even funnier than you to expect it to be. It’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s a blast.
The comics rib each other, explain themselves to the interloping journalist, and argue about the best rappers of all time (the “top five” of the title). Rock, directing his third feature film and allowing much more improvisation than he has in the previous two, orchestrates the scene expertly. Here and elsewhere, Top Five has a jaunty rhythm, credit for which goes not only to Rock—and executive music producer Questlove, who’s partly behind the pitch-perfect pop-music choices that keep the movie humming—but also editor Anne McCabe, who cut both of Kenneth Lonergan’s movies (among many others). Rock has compared his performance in the projects scene to Double Dutch, him trying to find his way in as the jokes keep swinging by. It’s a metaphor he likes. At another point in Top Five, we see snippets of Andre and Chelsea walking and talking around New York City, including a shot, returned to multiple times, of Andre trying to find his moment to jump as two girls swing ropes by a playground. He never does. Chelsea leaps right in.
That’s the two central characters in a nutshell: Chelsea is daring, perhaps a little too much so, while Andre, despite his success, is full of self-doubt. Best known for playing Hammy, a crime-fighting bear (a role mildly analogous, Rock acknowledges, to the zebra he voices in the lucrative Madagascar movies), Andre is making a bid to be taken seriously with his new movie, Uprize, in which he plays real-life Haitian revolutionary Dutty Boukman. (Brief clips of Allen-as-Boukman make it amusingly evident that we, unlike the critics in the movie, are not meant to take it seriously.) Top Five transpires, Linklater-like, in a single day, with Andre doing publicity engagements, running errands, and talking with Chelsea.
Andre and Chelsea are both recovering addicts, and they promise each other “rigorous honesty,” an unlikely pledge, of course, from a movie star to a celebrity profiler. (This detail pales in comparison to later revelations, which let us know that Rock’s take on journalism is not exactly reality-based.) But that promise provides an excuse for the movie to present comic set pieces in the form of flashbacks to embarrassing moments in their respective pasts. Andre narrates his “bottom,” a trip to Texas where he met the self-proclaimed “motherfucking man in Houston,” unforgettably embodied by Cedric the Entertainer. Chelsea, meanwhile, provides awkward bedroom details about her boyfriend in a tale that, along with an impressive bit of physical comedy by Anders Holm, carries an unfortunate whiff of homophobia. (The Houston story ends on the sour note of false rape charges; Rock’s sexual politics have never been as progressive as his shrewd, complex take on race in America.)
Dawson is terrific, making a complicated and slightly fantastical character seem like a real human being. Gabrielle Union accomplishes something similar, and with much less to work with: The role of Andre’s fiancée, Erica, who has a reality show on Bravo and whose upcoming marriage is meant to be a major media event, could have been a curdled Kim Kardashian caricature. But Union turns Erica’s lack of talent into a reason to sympathize with her, explaining to Andre that this superficial form of celebrity is all she’s got. We don’t get a particularly deep understanding of her relationship to Andre, but we do get a feel for the complicated relationship each of them has to fame. (I began to wonder what Kanye West—who, along with Jay Z, Scott Rudin, and Eli Bush, is a producer on the film—thinks of this storyline. And does Hammy look a little like the Dropout Bear? Probably I’m reaching.)
Rock’s own performance is not quite as dynamic or assured as that of his female co-stars, but then his job is mostly to register introspection and bewilderment at the madness that frequently surrounds him. It’s a self-consciously Woody Allen-ish role, most obviously akin to Sandy Bates, the filmmaker in Stardust Memories whose fans prefer his “earlier, funnier movies.” (Andre learns a lesson much like the one Sandy learns, though instead of hearing it from aliens, he infers it from a hilarious encounter featuring a cameo too good to spoil.) And it’s a testament to Rock’s generosity as a performer (and wisdom as a filmmaker) that he seems happy to be upstaged by his supporting cast. He recently told Frank Rich that his own daughter has said, “Kevin Hart’s funnier than you,” which makes it all the more impressive that he cast Kevin Hart in his movie and then let Hart be funnier than him.
That interview with Rich kicked off a wave of Q&A’s with such striking insights that Rock was finally dubbed “America’s real black president” by Gawker. But Top Five is not an op-ed. The movie probably makes its loudest statement about race simply by existing: an ambitious and personal film full of black stars, backed in part by black producers, written, directed by, and starring a hugely popular black artist. There is a scene in which a member of the NYPD puts a black man in a chokehold, which feels almost shocking in its timeliness, but which is mostly a reminder, if one were needed, that that shit has been going on for a long time (it even has a long history in film and stand-up). Admittedly, the moment in a strip club when Jerry Seinfeld lists his top five does serve as a commentary on terrible white taste in rap music. But mostly it serves as an inspired punch line to a very, very good time at the movies.