Top Five (2014)

First published by Sight & Sound, June 2015

Top Five Film - 2014Synopsis: New York City, present. Visiting from LA to promote his new, serious (and unappealing) historical film Uprize, comedian André Allen agrees to be interviewed by Chelsea Brown for a New York Times profile, despite having been mistreated in the past by the publication’s film critic James Nielson. Over the day, André meets the Cinderella-obsessed daughter, mother and cheating boyfriend of Chelsea, while she meets his extended local family, who bond by listing their favourite rappers. André gradually opens up to Chelsea about his alcoholism, his desire to be taken seriously, his fear of no longer being funny, and his mixed feelings about impending marriage – all managed by a production crew – to reality television star Erica Long. Shortly after a passionate clinch in a café bathroom, André discovers that Nielson is one of Chelsea’s pseudonyms. Feeling betrayed, he storms off, and after a drunken incident in a shop, is jailed. Released thanks to an intervention from Erica’s producer, André goes unhappily to a staged bachelor party in a strip club. Chelsea catches up with him, and persuades him to try stand-up again. Reenergised, André heads back to the airport, but stops when he finds Chelsea’s shoe in his gift bag.

Review: “Everything means something,” declares André Allen (Chris Rock) to his companion Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), in the opening scene of Top Five, as the camera tracks them through the city streets.

Chelsea disagrees, insisting, “Sometimes a movie is just a movie, sometimes a song is just a song, sometimes a joke is just a joke – remember those, jokes?”. A photographer, a poet, a musician, a loving single mother, a recovering alcoholic, and a journalist writing under various pseudonyms for some very different publications, Chelsea is able not only to keep up with, but also to run circles around, the more famous André as she spends the day interviewing him for a New York Times profile piece. This coincides with the release of André’s latest feature Uprize, a violent biopic of Haitian revolutionary Dutty Boukman, and Chelsea catches André at a moment of crisis. Himself a recovering alcoholic and convinced that the laughs he inspired first as a highly successful stand-up comedian and then as a star of low-brow Hollywood buddy comedies derived entirely from his drinking, he is struggling to make a transition to more “thought-provoking entertainment” even when his public just wants him to keep playing the clown; and he is also on the verge of getting married to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), but wondering how real their relationship is when it is all being stage-managed for a reality television show that mediates her every word and act.

The marriage that André seeks between popularity and authenticity finds its embryonic form in that opening sequence: for as this pair of intimate strangers wanders through New York City, their conversation similarly meanders free-associatively from meaningless entertainment to the breaking down of racial, social and sexual divides in America. Top Five itself is taking shape before our eyes as a film that smartly stretches the boundaries of its rom-com frame to accommodate all manner of materials, while never forgetting to be funny as well as serious. The contrast with Uprize, full of bludgeoning ire against white hegemony but free of both laughs and an audience, could not be clearer – and yet even as André’s ‘Haitian Django‘ tanks at the box office, Top Five represents its own brand of revolution against a Hollywood cultural model that tends to reduce African-American or Hispanic characters to comic foils, sidekicks – or to the cinematic periphery. No less comfortable discussing the politics of race or the dynamics of family than articulating their chequered erotic histories, here André and Chelsea take centre stage as educated, confident, fully-rounded characters – while it is Jerry Seinfeld and Adam Sandler who, in cameos as themselves, occupy the sidelines normally reserved for people of colour (although Whoopi Goldberg is there with them).

Top Five derives its name from a bonding game that André plays with his extended New York family, where each in turn lists their ‘top five’ rap artists. Although rooted in a fixed musical genre, the game enables its participants to make complex statements about their own shifting identities and allegiances, and does not confine them to over-rigid rules (several throw in a sixth choice for good measure). The titular game reflects, in its eclecticism and the flexibility of its rules, the film’s playful approach to its own chosen rom com form. For if André and Chelsea must juggle the conflicting aspects of their multi-faceted, ever-evolving lives and resurfacing pasts, Take Five itself comes with its own polymorphous identity and influences. On the one hand, writer/director Rock is giving popular romance a smart, contemporary spin, much as, for a school project, Chelsea’s young daughter updates the Cinderella fairytale (a key intertext here) to her own experiences in modern New York. On the other, the format in which we see two adults sharing one another’s company over a single day and night recalls the introspective, explorative walk and talk of Richard Linklater’s Before… films. Perhaps, though, the most striking intertext is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), whose production coincided with Top Five‘s. For where Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson was shadowed by a past populist rôle even as he sought a more respectable, less crassly commercial persona for himself, André exits every public appearance pursued by a bear – more specifically, by ‘Hammy’, the ridiculous ursine ‘character’ that he played in literally dehumanising costume for a blockbuster franchise, and that he would now like to leave forever behind. Both films profile the anxiety-riddled metamorphoses of individuals within an industry of illusion.

The political and cultural ground covered along the way lends a solid, substantial foundation to a witty film on a quest for both its own form of sincerity – and for a public appreciative of self-conscious sophistication. In this flimsiest of genres, that really means something.

Anton Bitel