Chris Rock is one of the funniest people alive.
But there are a lot of funny people in the world. Hell, there are a lot of funny people in Top Five, the new movie Rock wrote, directed, and stars in. People like Kevin Hart, Sherri Shepherd, J.B. Smoove, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharoah, and Tracy Morgan, who appear in various roles, while others turn up as themselves in cameo appearances I won't spoil.
Rock's ability to generate laughs has never been in question. But his particular gifts are felt in the incisive intelligence with which he does so, how he forges tough truths into razor-edged, bracingly intelligent jokes like no other. The past two weeks have found Rock dropping brilliantly honed observations like perfectly lobbed grenades by way of the press he's been doing for the film. He explained to New York that comedy is "the only thing that smacks Hollywood out of its inherent racism, sexism, anti-Semitism," forcing the industry to hire Roseanne Barrs on the basis of talent rather than the "thin blonde girls" to which it defaults.
He noted to Rolling Stone that he'd "love to work with Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater. But they don't really do those movies with black people that much." He wrote a terrific essay on race and the film industry in The Hollywood Reporter. He can't stop providing reminders of how good he can be in his undiluted form, on stage, or in print.
Top Five doesn't feel diluted either.
Rock has acted in projects that have been funny (or at least a grim but lucrative facsimile of funny, like Grown Ups), but that have had little resemblance to his stand-up. Neither of the two movies he directed before Top Five was entirely successful — there was the ramshackle satire Head of State, then the ambitious but uneven I Think I Love My Wife, a remake of a film by French New Wave director Eric Rohmer. He starred in both, but like many stand-ups he has always seemed most comfortable playing himself.
He both does and doesn't do that in Top Five, in which he plays Andre Allen, a comedian who became famous off of dumb comedies, but who's making a bid to be taken seriously as an actor. Andre's life is considerably less orderly than Rock's, a family man who lives with his wife and two kids in Alpine, New Jersey. Andre is a recovering alcoholic with years of hard partying behind him and an uncertain future in which he's preparing to marry a reality star named Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) who is broadcasting and auctioning off every aspect of their upcoming nuptials. The details of his personal life may not match that of Rock, but he's a container for all sorts of concerns about creativity, integrity, and fame that it's hard not to read as autobiographical. Top Five is untidy, hilarious, emotional, profane, smart, and bawdy in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable. It doesn't always hit its mark, but even its misses feel personal and unself-conscious — a genuine reflection of Chris Rock, auteur.
This is Rock's version of "arty."
That's how Rock describes his tastes to Rolling Stone, and while Top Five is packed with famous faces in various roles as well as in celebrity cameos, it feels intimate and indie — it was made independently and only picked up by Paramount after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. That's nothing new coming from a guy who remade Chloe in the Afternoon, but Top Five doesn't feel like it's trying to translate another filmmaker's ideas. It's Rock's Before Sunset, or his Stardust Memories, focusing on the pleasures of chemistry and dialogue as well as an artist confronting his own uncertainties. It's also got some totally outrageous bits of business involving Cedric the Entertainer and group sex gone wrong as well as Anders Holm and vengeance via tampon.
Andre's claim to fame is a string of hugely popular Hammy the Bear movies, in which he plays an ursine detective whose catchphrase is "It's Hammy time!" He plays the leader of a Haitian slave rebellion in a biopic called Uprize, the project that's supposed to legitimize him, but that no one seems to have interest in, and that the movie never pretends is anything but awful. Top Five is set over the course of a day in New York, where Andre reluctantly agrees to let a New York Times reporter named Chelsea Brown (Dawson) interview and shadow him on opening day. Chelsea turns out to be sexy and sharp as a tack — when he turns down her opening softball question and demands she skip right to the good stuff, she equanimously asks, "How come you aren't funny anymore?" They bounce off each other as they circle the city, dueling, flirting, and fighting in deeply enjoyable ways.
It's about being black, and about being famous.
And about being black and famous, an experience that Top Five renders in vivid detail, especially in terms of Andre's particular experience growing up poor in New York. A warmly uproarious sequence in which he goes back to his childhood home to visit his old friends serves as a platform for the talented comedians who play them to riff, but it also provides a parallel to a later one in which Andre visits with fellow celebrities in a club. He's got one foot in each world, but maintaining a balance is tricky, and he's very aware that plenty of people are prepared for — and maybe even expect — him to fall flat on his face rather than achieve something new. He and his friends joke about Tupac and what he might have achieved, and Andre notes that he'd like to think he'd become a senator, but just as likely he'd be playing "the bad, dark-skinned boyfriend in a Tyler Perry movie."
Andre has no idea where he's going — he's not following in anyone's footsteps. He's trying to blaze a trail, yearning for something uncertain, and if Top Five is romantic about how he gets back in touch with his roots, it's only in a way that reflects all comedy nerds. Top Five feels like it's doing the same thing, carving out a tradition for itself that doesn't exist, one that contains a little Woody Allen and a touch of Leslie Jones yelling to "keep it 100," and a lot of Chris Rock.