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Review: Top Five (TIFF 2014)

Top Five (TIFF 2014)
09.14.2014
8 10

PLOT: A superstar comedian (Chris Rock) spends an afternoon exploring his old Brooklyn neighbourhood with a reporter (Rosario Dawson) who's profiling him for the New York Times.

REVIEW: Where the heck did this come from??? While Chris Rock is without a doubt one of the great stand-up comedians of our era, his movies have been a mixed-bag at best. Even when he directed his own vehicles (I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE, HEAD OF STATE) they've always been second-class when compared to his stand-up specials. With TOP FIVE, that all changes and it's no surprise it emerged as the sleeper hit of the Toronto Film Festival, raking up a massive distribution deal with Paramount, who no doubt can sense its potential to break out in a big way.

Basically, Chris Rock has taken the energy and commentary that he brings to his stand-up and translated it perfectly into a big-screen outing. TOP FIVE allows him to go-off on plenty of tangents while still telling a strong story, in which he plays a superstar comedian with a bad history as an alcoholic, and a bunch of soul-sucking comedies under his belt in which he starred as a crime-fighting bear cop. As with the best stand-up comic generated hits like LOUIS, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, and SEINFELD, there's a strong autobiographical undercurrent running through TOP FIVE. While Rock doesn't seem to be as troubled as his character here, it's hard not to read into the frustration his character feels at being pigeonholed into dopey comedies. But, Rock also sends up the tendency for comics to attempt to crossover into drama with his alter-ego having just written, directed and starred in a big-budget flop about the Haitian Slave Uprising called UPRIZE, with clever sequences nailing the self-important vibe many stars-turned-directors take. Yet, at the same time TOP FIVE is almost certainly his own attempt at a big-screen reinvention, ditching the broad, family-friendly humor of something like HEAD OF STATE or GROWN-UPS, for a hard-R, racy tone.

As a comedy, TOP FIVE is undoubtedly one of the funniest movies of the year. Every once in a while, Rock takes a break from the plot to dive into a little side-story, like the kinds he tells in his stand-up, with flashbacks illustrating them, such as the night his character found himself the unwilling second man in an orgy alongside a crazed promoter played by Cedric The Entertainer. This could have been a really dangerous direction for Rock to take, as they may well have made the film feel episodic. Surprisingly, he manages to tie them into the storyline without a hitch. Additionally, Rock gets a lot of his famous friends to show up in cameos as themselves, generating major laughs, including Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler, and most impressively a gloriously foul-mouthed Jerry Seinfeld (someone needs to cast him as the lead in a hard-R comedy stat!).

What's especially noteworthy about TOP FIVE is how well it manages the occasional transition to drama, with Rock's battles with alcoholism and his deadbeat dad (Ben Vereen) being played mostly straight. Rock's chemistry with co-star Rosario Dawson is terrific, allowing this to have a romantic angle that really does feel organic to the plot. Rather than make her the typical dream-girl who's going to turn his life around, she's instead depicted as someone with a myriad of her own problems, to the point that for much of the film you're not even really sure that the two would be good for each other in a long-term relationship. Even characters that initially seem like walking cartoons, like Gabrielle Union as Rock's reality star fiancee and Romany Malco as her manager, have moments of introspection. Everyone here is really at the top of their game, including Tracy Morgan in a small part as Rock's brother-in-law, a foul-mouthed Kevin Hart, and a strong J.B Smoove as Rock's bodyguard/confidante.

It's not at all surprising that TOP FIVE ended up being TIFF's biggest deal, with Paramount shelling out $12 million to acquire it. Between Scott Rudin's seemingly golden touch as a producer, and Rock's incredibly solid chops as a writer-director-star, TOP FIVE feels like a smash waiting to happen. This is the movie we've been aching for Rock to make for years.

Source: JoBlo.com

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