Monday, December 22, 2014

A Celebration Of Celebrity, Its Pitfalls And Just Living

Chris Rock as Andre Allen and Rosario Dawson as Chelsea Brown in "Top Five", which Mr. Rock wrote and directed.
  Paramount Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, December 22, 2014

"Top Five" is top shelf.  Chris Rock's finest hour on film, and the best film he's been part of.  Fittingly he wrote and smartly directed "Top Five", a constantly funny, entertaining vehicle that's always aware of itself and its star.  Some of it feels autobiographical but as I watched "Top Five" I felt all of it could easily be true about Hollywood celebrity life and what it entails.  (And it probably is.)

Set in New York City, Mr. Rock's native town, "Top Five" evolves during a single day in the life of Andre Allen (Mr. Rock), a hugely successful movie star and comedian who has to fend off questions about sequels.  Andre has a new movie out about the Haitian Revolution.  He's tapped to marry a reality television star (Gabrielle Union) who is famous for not much in particular except for being beautiful. 

Andre's personal assistant (JB Smoove) can't believe his charge walks around a cloudy Manhattan without an umbrella.  Andre would rather not be interviewed by a journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who has exclusive time with Andre on this one day in the Big Apple.  Insights, revelations, confessions and episodes from Andre's life burst forth, and the laughs ensue. 

Mr. Rock, who has criticized Hollywood's racially homogeneous power brokers and industry men, has a lot of fun doing the same in "Top Five", which, incidentally, was produced by Scott Rudin.  Mr. Rock's film is a great rejoinder to the industry, as he puts many Blacks in his film.  You won't see a Hollywood studio film with more cameos of Black people in it in 2014 (or 2015) than "Top Five".  (Well, maybe "Selma".)

Of those celebrity cameos is one from Tracy Morgan that's now moving if not sad.  Mr. Morgan still is up to his old, bust-a-gut humorist self.

"Top Five", superbly written by Mr. Rock, is lively and energetic, with its cutting edge thought-provoking material.  Mr. Rock's fine and flavorful comedy film is about the business of packaging and the truth of surviving the highs and lows of life as a Black person in a celebrity skin in America.  One powerful scene late on illustrates this to stunning effect.  There's a bite and irony to the scene (as there is throughout) and it resonated and reverberated with me.  It is the singular best, most effective scene in "Top Five", a film grounded in its people and in crude, sexy and wildly raucous behavior.  (The n-word regrettably, flies around in high volume, and faster than champagne spray.)

In between laughs are episodes of isolation and mask-dropping.  None of the people in "Top Five" really want to be where they are.  They'd rather be elsewhere.  Some are happy.  Others are not.  All -- well, give or take -- that glitters is empty and pervades the world Andre tries to stay sober in.  Everything that happens to Andre appears fantastical, farcical, outsized and artificial, and that's one of the clearest points of "Top Five": you really wouldn't want to trade places with Andre.  

"Top Five" is a wise, perceptive, sometimes devastating look behind the curtain of celebrity status.  Some of it may feel familiar but the way Mr. Rock tells the story is wholly original, refreshing and hilarious.  The film captures a glimpse of celebrity life in contemporary America, which it embraces the whole ambit of, along with the intersection of race, money, power and love -- all laced with a touch of satire.

Conversation is the most impressive thing about "Top Five".  Its comfort level and verite aspect makes its observations and atmospheres authentically present and vital.  Chelsea and Andre's interactions are one long, fascinating adventure that feels improvised.  You never know where their talk will end.  The most enjoyable aspect of "Top Five" is the natural chemistry of Ms. Dawson and Mr. Rock.  Ms. Dawson in particular, is stellar, and all those in the director's film are terrific.

The depth and sincerity of "Top Five" and Andre Allen's wildly funny experiences is gratifying.  The film isn't a run-of-the-mill celebrity introspective.  What Andre says and experiences lingers beyond any scene.  Still, Andre can have fun and deliver the wit, humor and stinging truths Mr. Rock himself rattles off.  Andre enjoys living more than he enjoys his life, and "Top Five" is an infectious journey full of living enjoyed and celebrated.  There's warmth, familiarity and a continous congregation of people across class lines cherishing the joy and purity that simply living affords them, regardless of circumstance.  They don't take these moments for granted.

The film's anthem is its title, a repeated punch line for your choice of best five rap artists.  The top five lists cited in "Top Five" are an endearing note of pop culture and generational referencing, and a chance for the moviegoing audience to directly participate.  The top five refrain feels like a rebuke of those music entertainment writers in the late 1970s and early 1980s who swore rap music would be a thing of the past.  (How wrong they were.)

Oh, and my reworked top five?

1.  Rakim
2.  Tupac Shakur
3.  Big Daddy Kane
4.  Slick Rick
5.  Kurtis Blow

What's yours?

Also with: A lot of familiar faces whose names you know.  Let each of their appearances be a surprise to you.

"Top Five" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use.  Its running time is one hour and 42 minutes.

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