Sunday 14 April 2019

On TV: "Top Five"

Top Five is writer-director-star Chris Rock attempting to make sense and regain control of his own career in the guise of a stand-up-turned-moviestar who has comprehensively lost control of his. Rock's playing Andre Allen, once acclaimed as the funniest voice of his generation but subsequently reduced to wearing a bearsuit in a series of wildly popular, evidently crap comedies possibly intended as analogous to the Grown-Ups or Madagascar franchises. Ahead of two major personal projects - a biopic of a Haitian revolutionary and his planned wedding to a reality-TV star - Andre agrees to be interviewed by a New York Times journalist, Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), who quickly announces herself as a long-time admirer. Still, this doesn't deter her from asking why Andre isn't funny any more - and such a question, from such an attractive and intelligent fan, prompts him into rethinking his life choices.

It should be noted that, from the off, something about this set-up doesn't entirely ring true. In the corporate-controlled entertainment universe Rock's trying to evoke, it seems unfeasible that a journalist, even one striving to write an intimate profile, would be afforded the kind of access Chelsea is granted: she takes him back to her place so she can pick up a Dictaphone (wouldn't happen), he takes her back to his former home in the projects so as to show her where he came from (also wouldn't happen). Yet the film's relaxed vibe is such that you do settle into and go along with it. Rock surrounds himself with his peers and his pals, as Adam Sandler often does, although it feels as if they're here to stage a jovial intervention, rather than merely egging the star on. Kevin Hart is Andre's agent (and we conclude our boy must have been in a mess to have employed Kevin Hart as his agent); Tracy Morgan is his belligerent brother; Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld and Whoopi Goldberg play themselves as a stripclub's Greek chorus.

On the plus side, this inherent looseness allows Rock and Dawson to build an unforced rapport comparable to that the director-star built with Julie Delpy in 2 Days in New York, and to integrate flickers of the riffing stand-up Rock of old: somewhere in the couple's back-and-forths, you'll hear traces of smart, funny, previously unbroadcast routines about the Planet of the Apes movies, and where Tupac might have ended up if he'd lived long enough to be appropriated by the mainstream. The downside is that Top Five increasingly feels too lenient to carry out the task Rock sets for it, and far more indulgent than, say, TV's Louie has been of its drifting comedian hero. Someone seems to have been handing Rock notes to tone down the self-interrogation in favour of Friday night crowdpleasing, and it's a pity he wasn't prepared to push back. He can do both simultaneously, as in a three-in-a-bed romp gatecrashed by fixer-pimp Cedric the Entertainer, which climaxes with the tremendous image of Andre groggily waking up on a bare mattress strewn with feathers and stained with the interloper's cum. (It would bear framing above the title "Showbiz: The Morning After".) 

Much else, though, has been set up in such a way as to facilitate Andre bouncing from whiny, nagging fiancée to new girl with personal and professional integrity intact: it's somehow not enough for the comedian to remove Chelsea's boyfriend from the picture, the latter has to be outed as gay as well. (Because, as we all know, only a penis-obsessed comic has what it takes to truly satisfy a woman.) As the Andre-Chelsea meet tips over into outright flirtation, Top Five becomes both trickier and more contrived: you may start to wonder if the film isn't determined to uphold Rock-Allen's need to speak truth to power (translated here into the credo "rigorous fucking honesty") by making everybody else look bad. Andre Allen's redemption doesn't demand anything so strenuous as him raising his game; it comes from the realisation everyone's just as compromised as he is. It's nice that a multimillionaire such as Rock should still be possessed of soul enough for it to be searched, and that he should think to present the results in such an entertaining format: your reward for sitting through Top Five is a few minutes of Rock on stage at the Comedy Cellar doing what he does best, and the movies' least likely rendition of Nat King Cole's "Smile". Yet as Andre drives off into the night with the prospect of a New York Times spread and a new fuckbuddy on the horizon, it's hard not to think his rewards have been altogether easily reaped.

Top Five screens on Channel 4 tonight at 11.55pm.

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