The title of Chris Rock’s “Top Five” comes from the practice of listing one’s top five favorite musicians, but this film is unlikely to land on anyone’s top five list of movies. It’s about a popular comedian trying and failing to make a serious film, and it also is that: a weirdly hollow story that is neither funny enough nor moving enough.
Rock plays Andre Allen, and perhaps he chose that name to directly echo Woody Allen, who also made a movie, “Stardust Memories,” about a comedian whose fearfully serious material is rejected by fans who prefer his “earlier, funnier” stuff. The funniest gag from “Top Five” is the ludicrous billboard for Andre Allen’s new film. Entitled “Uprize,” it is the true story of a Haitian slave who led a massively bloody uprising, and features Chris Rock wielding a machete and trying to look seriously vicious. Of course it’s preposterous.
Andre Allen is meant to be past his prime; his most popular character was a ridiculous crime fighting bear, and strangers shout one-liners at him constantly. The present day finds him struggling to maintain his sobriety, and engaged to a reality television star played by Gabrielle Union. Their wedding has its own Bravo show, and Allen bristles under the attention, especially when he is directed how to act or dress in his real life, or when he goes to pick up their wedding rings and finds that his fiancée has switched them for a more camera-friendly choice.
Amidst his film opening and his impending nuptials, Allen does press interviews across New York City, and is accompanied by a journalist from the New York Times, played by Rosario Dawson. He tries to refuse because the Times’ film critic has always been particularly cruel to his films, but of course he has to go along with it, and throughout the day the two open up to each other.
The primary energy of the film comes from Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson relating to one another. She, too, is a recovering alcoholic, and through flashbacks we see what some of their past problems have been. I found these sequences to be particularly ineffectual; they just weren’t illuminating. The film’s deeper moments do not dig deep enough.
Judd Apatow made another film that looked at the serious side of comedy, called “Funny People,” and it was a mixed bag, too. What I thought was interesting about that film was that through Adam Sandler we got a look inside the way stand up worked. “Top Five” digs into the fame machine, too, but mostly the media side, and the behind- the-scenes manipulations weren’t anything new to behold.
The strongest scenes were when Andre Allen visits his family and friends in New York. There was a loose energy that gave the film all its best dialogue and Rock was at his best, too, as if he really were more comfortable around those people like his character was.
Ultimately Dawson’s character is trying to dig out the real Andre Allen, while his fiancée’s L.A. producers are trying to remake him for their purposes, and his fans just want him to be a bear. As viewers of this movie about movies, we have the meta-experience of just wanting Chris Rock to be funny, and feeling like he’s mad at us for wanting that. We get a brief glimmer of the joy of his stand up, but it isn’t enough.