The Unflinching Honesty of Top FivePosted: December 16, 2014
Of all the things I expected before seeing Top Five, the one thing I did not expect was to be completely flabbergasted about reviewing it. And yet, Chris Rock’s latest directorial effort has stonewalled me for almost two weeks, because in addition to being absurdly funny it is also one of the more thematically dense comedies that I’ve seen in awhile. Rock is trying to accomplish so much in this movie that he runs perilously close to losing control of his story, but instead he pulls off the high-wire act with aplomb, delivering one of my favorite movies of this year and possibly the best cinematic thing that Rock has ever done.
Top Five is many things all at once, the most obvious and integral to its structure being a romantic comedy. The relationship arc between Andre (Rock) and Chelsea (Rosario Dawson) is classic rom-com getting-together stuff, which works well in no small part because of the great chemistry between the two leads. In addition to the love story, Rock is also addressing themes of celebrity, sobriety, and fear of rebirth, with some classic returning-to-your-roots elements mixed in as well. This could easily have made the film too busy, and as well as Rock handled it the core theme was almost lost to me. But when you take all the disparate elements as part of one whole (especially being built on romantic comedy structure) it becomes clear that above all Top Five is about the importance of honesty in relationships. Admittedly that sounds like something really broad and Moral-of-the-Story-ish, but it’s much more affecting and adult than that.
What makes the theme so impactful are the disparate plot elements that also threaten to drown it out, because Rock is able to weave them all together to support and emphasize the core theme of honesty. It’s most directly introduced by Andre and Chelsea’s shared sobriety: honesty is part of their recovery, and Chelsea invokes this in trying to interview Andre to get legitimate conversations out of him. And it’s further explored in the difference between Andre’s interactions with his family and friends (who pull no punches and aren’t afraid to call him out on things) and the phony celebrity wedding that he’s about to go through. It becomes clear throughout the story that Andre, being a celebrity that has people trying to please him all the time, has forgotten the importance of having people in his life who will be honest with him when he needs it. What frustrates him so much about Chelsea is how she won’t hide her disdain for his recent career, and challenges him in the way that people don’t anymore. Once he embraces that challenge and goes along with her, he finds himself in as happy a place as we’ve seen him throughout the film.
It’s a very simple but poignant message, the reminder that we need people in our lives to hold us accountable, instead of sycophants that are more interested in gratifying themselves through us (an idea most vividly dramatized by Cedric the Entertainer). Rock is also smart enough to show us how other characters besides Andre also deal with that lack of honesty in their lives. Chelsea’s story about her relationship with her boyfriend is a very different (but still relevant) exploration of how a relationship fails without honest discussion about ourselves. Rock even explores the other side of that coin, through one brilliant monologue delivered by Andre’s reality star fiancee Erica (Gabrielle Union). She flat out admits that she’s put on a show throughout their relationship because she wants the validation of being with someone like Andre, and how she needs to gain that validation through him. It’s human and raw, and drives home not just the idea of honesty in relationships, but also the importance of owning your own life, mistakes and all.
Andre is tied down by so much in the beginning of the film that it’s amazing how much walking he is able to accomplish through the story. He’s trapped in this increasingly emotionless reality show marriage, one that he’s being pressured to go through with by his fiancee, his agent, and even himself. He’s trying to claw his way out from underneath his regrettable mainstream movie career, but going about it in exactly the wrong way. But above all, he’s still being controlled by his battle for his own sobriety; his desire to stick with his detached fiancee and his desire to be a Serious Artist are both motivated by a fear of sliding back into alcoholism. Over the course of the film his growing relationship with Chelsea, and her unflinching honesty with him, is what helps him get past his fear and reclaim his life.
It’s hard not to think that at least some of Top Five is meant to be autobiographical for Chris Rock, but the film never feels self-involved or navel-gaze-y. Indeed, despite the heightened nature of a film built around modern celebrity, it’s a very relatable and human story. But more than anything, it is still a comedy, and Top Five may be the funniest thing I’ve seen this year, and it’s definitely worth seeing in all its raunchy and emotional glory. Oh, and that final shot of JB Smoove? Perfection.