Top Five (USA: 2014): Chris Rock in his Zone

“Top Five” is Chris Rock’s third pass in the director’s chair and first attempt at a more serious movie. It is a comedy, but relatively low key one for Saturday Night Live alums. It tells intertwined stories, both of which are well-worn. One is a straightforward romantic comedy about man having second thoughts about a pending wedding after meeting a much better match. The second is of an actor, Dre Allen (Rock), whose star is starting to fade a little, who is trying to stretch his career in a new direction, framed as an interview with a reporter. That the reporter (Rosario Dawson) happens to be the new potential love interest for Dre makes for a rather choppy narrative, but nonetheless one with many comedic highlights.

Of the two stories, I found the story of the fall and rise of Dre to be more compelling. The romance was just too cliched and didn’t do much for me. While it is good that Rock attempted to give the female lead something more to do than follow Dre around and ask him questions, what we learn about her to fill in her story and make Dawson’s character a suitable match doesn’t really lead anywhere comfortable.There isn’t much drama in the story and we know from the moment Dre and Chelsea meet, they will end up together, three days before his wedding, after spending all of 12 hours getting to know one another.

Dre’s fiance, Erica (Gabrielle Union) is a fame-hungry but otherwise talent-less reality show celebrity, similar to a Kardashian, with very few redeeming qualities, Dre’s choice is very obvious and easy, since Chelsea is very talented woman, a good mother, writer and photographer. He doesn’t actually need Chelsea to help him figure that out. If there wasn’t a new love interest, we wouldn’t want Dre to marry Erica anyway. Sure, Chelsea already has a boyfriend, but he turns out to be gay and has the unfortunate luck to choose to show up with his boyfriend in the same hotel lobby where Chelsea and Dre are conducting their interview, so he is easily dispatched. I think you get the picture-the romance is all very tidy, convenient, predictable and dull.

While the story of the unhappy superstar is also cliched, I think Rock does a much better job telling it, and most of the film’s highlights come from telling that story. The mystery that everyone wants to know is why Dre doesn’t want to be funny any more. He’s given up stand-up. He’s walked away from a series of super successful (if dreadful sounding) films. A decade ago, he was lauded as the funniest man in America – facts that every interviewer keeps reciting. Dre has given that up to do  a serious role as a historic leader of a Haitian slave uprising that is destined to bomb at the box office. (On one billboard, a critic has declared it “Interesting!”) Obviously, the question is why, and it’s a fair one.

The easy answer is that he is seeking some kind of legitimacy. We had legitimacy as the motivation for an actor who walked away from stardom in Birdman just a few months ago. However the hook in Top Five is that the standard motivations that we would readily accept as an audience turn out to be false ones. What looms large over Dre’s motivations are alcoholism and the restrictions of his recovery in a social milieu where one can’t just simply reorder the world to make things easy. The best scenes are the ones that deal with that theme. The problem with Dre is that he hit rock bottom and stayed there just as while career was taking off. Jump 10 years forward and four years into recovery, the choices he is making have to do with avoiding failure in his recovery program. It would actually be a very good film without the romantic comedy spliced into it.

I wanted to like the film a lot more than I actually ended up liking it. But a few moments and performances stand out. Cedric the Entertainer is on top as the local player who owns Houston and who was there when Dre hits rock bottom. Tracy Morgan and especially Leslie Jones stand out in an ensemble cast of family members and friends from Dre’s youth.  J.B. Smoove does the most he can with a role security guard and long-time friend for Dre that I think could have been better developed. And DMX had me in stitches as himself, or a version of himself who wants to give up hip hop to become a crooner.

I don’t know if those moments in which the comedians are allowed to shine is enough to recommend the movie, but they will be memorable. I doubt I will look at DMX the same way again.

**1/2 of five.

IMDB: Top Five

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