Mitch Hedberg: When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do things besides comedy. They say, ‘OK, you’re a stand-up comedian — can you act? Can you write? Write us a script?’… It’s as though if I were a cook and I worked my ass off to become a good cook, they said, ‘All right, you’re a cook — can you farm?’
I’ve always found it to be sort of sad that Chris Rock has never really starred in a movie anywhere near as funny as he is on stage as a comedian. He made a few PG-13 comedies where he would remake some old white movie and it would end up tepid and disappointing (Down to Earth, Head of State). It was always my opinion that these failures were due to the fact that Chris Rock had to curse to be funny. Who wants to see Chris Rock in a PG-13 movie? Having sort of failed as a leading man, he slept through a few mindless Adam Sandler vehicles as a supporting character, who of course wasn’t anywhere near as funny and intelligent as the real Chris Rock.
Top Five doesn’t get any points for originality, like Rock’s other film’s he’s again taking territory that’s been covered by white artists and moving it into the black world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. CB4 wasn’t as funny as Spinal Tap, but it had its moments. Here Rock takes on the white LA stories of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Judd Apatow’s Funny People and moves it to New York. Since it’s in New York, I suppose it then becomes necessary to make it look and feel like a Spike Lee or Woody Allen movie. It sounds like it took about two minutes to pitch. Funny People + black + New York sort of equals a Spike Lee version of Woody Allen’s Celebrity. If someone points out that Louis CK covered this geographical and generational territory already, they wouldn’t be wrong. Even with its influences all over his sleeves, at least Rock shows that his ambitions haven’t died. Most of the past century of popular culture has seen whites taking from black culture and spinning it to a white world. Chris Rock’s film career is one of the few examples of a black man taking his influences from white culture and spinning it into a black world. Either way in the end it’s the work that matters.
Top Five, which promises “rigorous truth,” takes an interesting look at the entire landscape of not just black standup comedy, but black culture as a whole. It can be as high minded as the familiar music from Charlie Mingus (Just to see if you are paying attention Rock plays Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” in tribute to a terrible movie his character has made about a revolt in Haiti) and John Coltrane he uses as the backdrop of a day where his alter ego Andre Allen gets interviewed and entranced by a beautiful New York Times reporter played by Rosario Dawson. It can be as low brow as Wu Tang Clan’s ‘Ol Dirty Bastard, but Rock is interested and oddly proud of all of it.
Allen was a talented comedian, who made a ton of money making an absurd children’s trilogy about a character named Hammy the Bear. He is newly sober and afraid that he can’t be funny clean. Meanwhile, his efforts at being a serious artist remind you that not everyone is capable of serious art. The character is supposed to bring to mind Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and Rock himself, but the person I most thought of was Dave Chappelle, who is a close friend of Rock’s. Like Chappelle, Allen is constantly hounded by his career making catch phrase whether he is walking in a bar, in the park or walking out of jail. “Hammy!” Chappelle went into exile; Rock made this film.
There is a lot of humor, but aside from a sex flashback that reminds us of a similar scene in CB4 or something out of a Sasha Baron Cohen comedy, the movie in the end is more of a soul searching drama. It’s filled with Rock’s views on celebrities, fame, women, and money as well as pride in the high points of both black culture and white culture. There are references to Lenny Bruce and Charlie Chaplin, whose song “Smile” gets amusingly desecrated by fellow jail detainee, rapper DMX.
The film looks good and flows well, and Rock is as empathetic as Dawson is enticing, but does this film really need to exist? Not really, Chris Rock could have just filmed another stand up special and covered all of the same ground. It probably would have been even funnier and more artistic, but Top Five is so much better than Rock’s earlier efforts that it at least earns him a pass. Top Five is Chris Rock’s comedy state of the union 2014 speech.