I don't feel like being funny in movies anymore.

I don’t feel like being funny in movies anymore.

We forget sometimes that some very funny people have found a higher level of success by “going legit”. They dial down the goofy, dial down the raunch, and follow a script. If it works, entire generations will see them as a weightier talent than the fans who were drawn to them as loveable goofballs. So many, for instance never think of Emma Thompson’s time with Footlights. Scores forget about Tom Hanks’ run on “Bosom Buddies”. Even Bill Murray has refined his schtick enough that some might not see him as an SNL alum. The payoff can be huge – bigger opportunities, gold statues, possibilities beyond a microphone and a brick wall.

In TOP FIVE, we watch Chris Rock’s character Andre Allen try to do something similar and “go legit” himself…eschewing dressing up as a gun-toting bear and instead portraying the leader of a slave rebellion. It begs the question, is Rock himself looking to “go legit”?

TOP FIVE begins with Allen grumbling about doing an interview with a New York film critic. Critics lauded him as he rose through the stand-up ranks, but have been quick to shred him when he parlayed that talent into a series of movies about a crime-fighting fuzzy bear named “Hammy”. The reaction has left him distrustful of critics, but he finally meets his interviewer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), something opens a door. It could be that like Allen, she too is in recovery. It could be that she seems to like his work. Whatever the reason, Allen decides to open up about his work and his career to-date.

That career has brought him to the strange place we find him in. It’s a place where people yell “HAMMY!” when they see him walking on the street. It’s a place that has him pushing hard to get his dramatic film UPRIZE to catch on with audiences and critics. It’s a place that has him fighting hard to stay on the wagon. And it’s a place that has him getting married to his betrothed reality TV star, Erica (Gabrielle Union) on a highly-hyped Bravo TV special.

When I spell it all out that way, you’d think that Allen would have a tough and frustrating tale to tell Brown, and by extension us. You’d think that laughs would be few and far between.

You’d think wrong.
Dawson and Rock

TOP FIVE has a lot to say about the nature of celebrity in the age of social media. Once upon a time a talent like Allen would be a quiet poet: a bar stool prophet cloaked in mystique who would step in front of a few hundred people to skewer their understanding of the world and leave their very souls alight with laughter. What he did when the spotlight turned off might have been the source of curiosity, but it was seldom a source of discussion. But now, what worked for Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin isn’t enough anymore. Now we want a better jester. Now a comic talent like Allen is always on, always looked to for a line, a smile, a selfie. That has to wear on that sort of talent. It’s not enough to “be funny”. Now they are a waking, talking, living brand. That brand might have to host a party at a club, push a label, or be part of a television show that follows them around all-day. How can any class clown hope to make a go of it?

The paradox is that certain comedians are able to take that new devil’s bargain and make a go of it. Meanwhile, personalities who rise to fame to be a living brand are a slave to it. Erica has a particularly poignant moment that underlines this harsh reality…and it might be one of the smartest pieces of commentary in a film filled with smart commentary.

There have been a few films already this year that have explored the relationship between relationship critic and artistic talent…and TOP FIVE might have the sharpest take. It suggests that neither side truly knows the other. Critics are grafting an artists work on to their personality, and making judgements about them as a person based on their creative output (which they may or may not control). While that’s the nature of the beast, it seems like with every passing year, critics are taking bloodier and bloodier swipes at the talent…and that’s not fair. On the flip side, the artist often knows little-if-anything about the critic. They might come to the table with loving expectations, or might be trying to get a toehold in an ever-vanishing field. They might take their shots, but it might not always be as personal as it seems. Does either side win in this particular push-pull? No, but both sides have a claim.

The fact of the matter is that everybody’s hustling; everybody is trying to reach the next level, or get back to the level they once were at. The best part is that rulebook has been torn up, so if you want to be a creative voice or a critical voice -or even a creative critical voice – all you need to do is have the balls to speak-up.

The crazy thing is that not much of what TOP FIVE has to say is new, but it says it all with such cutting wit that it feels new. It’s like a track on an album you don’t play often, but when the track comes up on random setting, you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time. It suits the mood of the moment, seems to sum things up in a way you can’t quite, and combines something familiar with something fresh. It never tries to do too much, and with that does so many things. And perhaps best of all? The film isn’t afraid to be raunchy. Either it knows it’s a film geared at adults, or it doesn’t care and thinks kids are going to see what kids see. It takes its (well-earned) R rating, and wears it as a badge of honour.

Any film that does what this film does with such ease is at least worth a spin. That TOP FIVE can do all of this and do it with such wicked humour makes it repeat-worthy. This isn’t Chris Rock trying to go legit. This isn’t Chris Rock trying to be taken seriously. This is Chris Rock finding another level to his well-practised game. This is Chris Rock delivering something special.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on TOP FIVE.