The end of 2014 has been rife with navel-gazing examinations of the intersections of fame, pop culture and art. Few have been as confounding as Top Five, Chris Rock’s meditation on what it means to be famous, black, and male in a world dominated by white men. Difficult to dismiss, frequently funny, yet problematic as hell, Top Five becomes a conundrum that makes it a difficult movie to consider.
Top Five is a digressive day in the world of Chris Rock’s Woody Allen-style stand-in, Andre Allen. Allen is a former drug-using alcoholic comedian who fears he isn’t funny after sobering up. Instead of making yet another installment in the Big Momma’s House-esque comedic film series Hammy The Bear, Allen puts his energy into Uprize, a movie about the Haitian Revolution where a slave rose up to slaughter the white minority.
At the beginning of Top Five, Allen finds out that James Nielson of The New York Times gave Uprize a bad review and that the NYT also wants to follow Allen around for the day. Reluctantly, Allen allows Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) to tail him as he goes to press junkets, kicks around his old neighborhood, and prepares for his wedding with a reality television star. As per formula, Allen and Brown dig into each other trying to find out what makes each other tick while also falling in love.
In a way, Top Five crosses Stardust Memories with Before Sunrise, as Rock clashes with the perception people have of his persona while also walking and talking with a girl that the script has declared to be his enemy and love interest, creating an ambitious Frankenmovie. He makes observations about fame and culture, many of which are entirely accessible even if you aren’t black. If Rock had stopped there, Top Five would be a triumph. But, Rock makes a lot of other, far more problematic, pointed comments about life.
It’s about to get a little spoileriffic up in here, but I think there are some worthwhile discussions contained within the film.
The first discussion is the intersection of race and homosexuality in this film. It shouldn’t be that much of a stretch that black culture has been slightly more behind the times when it comes to accepting homosexuality. It was only in 2011 that Tracy Morgan, who has a bit part in Top Five, was making jokes that he would violently kill his son if his son came out as gay. At first, Rock came out in defense of Morgan but then recanted. Frequently, the homosexual culture has had to go up against Baptist churches in battling for their rights. Frank Ocean is about the only gay rapper who has made a modicum of movement in the rap community. With this culture in mind, there are a total of two gay characters in Top Five, both white.
The first white homosexual is a radio host Andre Allen has to do an interview with at Sirius XM. Rock – as writer, director and star – makes it pointedly clear that Allen is not happy with any of the hosts of Sirius XM and is about fed up with the whole interview junket thing. His interviews with Opie and Anthony, a black show, and a gay show are all equally destructive, and none of the hosts make it out of the scenes alive. Everybody is seen as bloodsuckers who want to put Andre in a box. The gay interviewer is just as bad as any of the others. This isn’t nearly as troubling as the second time a homosexual shows up.
The second homosexual comes in the form of a side character. Chelsea Brown, throughout the film, is trying to text her boyfriend Brad. Brad is a white DJ who has not been responding to the texts. As it turns out, Brad has been boinking his friend Ryan, who also has a girlfriend, in a hotel all day. Brad is shown to be somebody who is dating Brown just for the appearances of being a straight guy, even though he likes having a finger up his ass. When he humiliates Chelsea at a dinner, she puts a tampon with hot sauce up his ass, punishing him for humiliating her and for being gay.
But, it’s not just homosexuals who get the shaft. Women are shown to be awful people too. Top Five is littered with terrible people, mind you, but women seem to be presented as more terrible because their duplicitous nature is always aimed at men.
Chelsea isn’t all that she seems. After Allen and Brown fall in love, Andre is looking through her phone (which doesn’t have a lock?!) and sees a note from her editor outing Brown as James Nielson, the sworn enemy of Allen’s career. Inexplicably, this isn’t a deal breaker for either Allen or Brown, but it does further explore her lying side (which also includes another pseudonym for Cosmo).
It that wasn’t bad enough, Allen relates his “rock bottom” story as a tale where he got drunk with a promoter who sent two girls to his hotel room one night. But, then the promoter came up and had sex with the two girls, and they left. Which, whatever. But, then the two girls came back looking for $1,000 each, promised by the promoter, or else they’d call rape. Which they do, sending Rock to jail. Even though Top Five was completed before the Cosby allegations came out of the woodwork (it premiered at TIFF in September), the morals of the scene (where people will falsely cry rape at famous people to get money) feels especially sensitive. In Rock’s worldview, women will cry rape at famous people for money or fame, and lends to the culture of not believing the accuser.
The only people in Top Five with any dignity are Andre Allen and Silk, his bodyguard. Silk, however, has a penchant for big women and will touch and grab them at his own will. But, this isn’t a flaw and is play for laughs; a running joke that will be repeated in next week’s The Wedding Ringer. Everybody else is just out for themselves. Even Allen’s agent (Kevin Hart) is willing to ditch Allen for a chance to meet Ben Stiller. White people are just wanting to make Allen into a clown, or to further their own career. Thus, leaving Allen all alone to fight for his own dignity.
Though, this brings up the question of how much dignity does Andre Allen and Chris Rock deserve. This is a movie where Allen assaults a display case of beer only to get his ass kicked by a bunch of white NYPD officers while being arrested, all played for laughs. Rock is obviously trying to challenge our notions of race and fame, in the process dumping on women and gays. It’s difficult to give Rock the benefit of the doubt when he’s busy pushing everybody else down, even if they’re also below him.
When Rock is off exploring some of the intersections of life in the modern culture with junkets and interviews, he makes some prescient points about being a celebrity while also trying to keep hold of one’s self. When Top Five is funny, it’s hilarious, with Rock showing quite a bit of aptitude with comic timing. But, the movie is extremely problematic in its morality – a topic that’s fair game since Top Five serves as a polemic as much as Stardust Memories did – and structure (the unnecessary romance between Rock and Brown is eyerollingly painful).
At one point in the movie, Andre Allen dismisses articles like these by making the point that the original Planet of the Apes came out the day before Martin Luther King, Jr was shot, and that the culture is tied together. Essentially, Rock is dismissing these “cinematic politics mean something” articles by making an ironic, absurdist, and reductionary argument. Does that mean we shouldn’t be chewing on the topics of fame and race that he’s presenting and absorb the movie like it is meaningless? Or, should we be digesting it?
What are we to do with Top Five? What can we do with it? I don’t have an answer.