By: Daniel Reynolds
The biggest news in the film industry right now involves Seth Rogen, James Franco, and North Korea. I always knew, deep down, that Franco would eventually be responsible for threats of international terrorism. Anyway, The Interview is all anyone can talk about. (See our exclusive early take here!) There are obvious reasons for that: the precedent Sony has set by cancelling the film’s release, the sudden fears over a presumed attack from North Korea, the thousands of Sony employees who got their personal information aired out over the internet, the fact that Angelina Jolie may be, gasp, spoiled.
In all this mayhem, movies are still getting released. Good ones, in fact. As we near the end of 2014, a thoroughly disheartening year if you’ve been paying attention to news throughout, you’ve probably seen a few of them.
Last weekend, after a rousing week of successful press, Chris Rock released his latest picture, Top Five. He wrote and directed the film, got many of his famous friends to stop by for cameos, and ultimately managed to craft a rich, warm romantic comedy that feels both familiar and refreshingly new. In the spirit of its title – and as a way to remember the better times we’ve had this year in film – let’s count down our own top five: the best (or at least most memorable) moments from Rock’s Top Five.
5)JB Smoove as bodyguard, assistant, old friend, and lover of big women everywhere
In the film, Rock plays Andre Allen, a successful comedian and movie star who is now a recovering alcoholic and out of touch with what’s funny. He’s still in the public eye, even if his work leaves something to be desired. His confidant through the film, Silk, is played by none other than JB “Leon Black” Smoove. He’s the one who guides Allen, protects him, and ultimately delivers him to where he’s supposed to be. With his bugged out face and lisp, Smoove is exactly the kind of friendly, yet wild-eyed, guy you’d want to have in your corner if you were walking the streets of New York as a celebrity.
The joyous running joke in the film, of course, is that Smoove has a taste for ladies with some junk in the trunk, as it were. To watch Smoove go in on his various flirtation attempts (a highlight: Gabourey Sidibe) is to truly understand why his name is similar to “smoooooth.”
4) Jerry Seinfeld makes it rain at a strip club
Look, I’m not saying Seinfeld automatically makes the list because he’s Seinfeld. He makes the list because of how Rock has leveraged what being “Seinfeld” means in 2014. Ostensibly, Seinfeld’s scene in a strip club is there because Andre Allen needs a bachelor party – as approved by his reality TV-made fiancee (Gabrielle Union) – and needs it stocked with some famous friends. But really, it means putting Jerry in a strip club (with Whoopi Goldberg and Adam Sandler)to riff a few lines, including angrily telling a stripper where she may have put his wallet.
Bonus points for during the credits: Seinfeld reveals his top five rappers. (Hint: Put it on the glass!!!!)
3) The constant yelling of “Hammy”
Rock’s character Allen was made famous for playing the role of a bear cop named Hammy. Yes, that doesn’t make any sense (though it is funny to see Luis Guzman as his partner). I’m OK with Rock having some general disdain for the mass audience and what they’ll stoop to consume. I won’t even bust his chops about Grown Ups here. That said, I do wish he found a slyer way to go about detailing Allen’s rise to fame. A bear cop? Give me a break.
To make up for the fart joke that is the “Hammy” concept, Rock cleverly has people yelling after his character wherever he walks in Manhattan. Now this feels real. Throughout the film as he talks to the reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), New Yorkers are constantly yelling out “Hammy!” as a way to acknowledge the faded star. It’s a small touch, but it fills in the sounds of the frame well. It puts us in the uneasy mind space that must exist for a certain type of public figure. This is what it feels like to be a celebrity in the modern day. Don’t believe me? Just ask Dave “I’m rich bitch!” Chappelle.
2) The living room come to life
But the celebrity side is only one part. For Chelsea to get the full image of Andre Allen, she ventures with him to his home turf: the living room. Here, in a much-loved scene, we meet Allen’s network of friends and family from his old neighbourhood. That the film feels as comfortable here as it does detailing the excesses of young celebrity life, and the vacuity of moneyed reality TV fame, is a testament to Rock’s insight and ability.
It’s also the first time we see Andre Allen relax, and the first time we see where he honed his comedic chops. That the scene also features guys like Jay Pharoah and Michael Che, the real-life heirs to the throne built by Rock, could not have happened by accident. There’s even a note of poignancy inadvertently introduced at the sight of Tracy Morgan, survivor of a bad bus crash, hanging out on the couch. Here is a peak into an alternate dimension where Morgan never becomes a late night comedy staple, never transmutes himself into Tracy Jordan. He becomes just another wacky, broken character from a particular kind of memory. It’s an easy scene to laugh at all-around, but it informs with enough touching moments to drive home something genuine.
1) Life imitates art
This begins with Rock’s selection of names. He’s given his character the moniker Andre Allen, which to me calls to mind both Woody Allen – the king of talky Manhattan movies – and My Dinner With Andre, a talky Manhattan movie. It’s Rock’s way of acknowledging some of his influences while not drowning in them. The entire film feels like this: knowing, but also new.
Throughout Top Five there are ridiculous scenes (the entire sequence with Cedric the Entertainer; the bizarre cameo of *redacted* in a city lock-up) but there is also an unfailingly and honest connection with the idea of entertainment, art and comedy. Chris Rock, through the 90s, became one of the most successful comedians of all time. He was the successor to Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. He could do anything. Somehow though, despite a run of hugely successful comedy specials, Rock’s career has always felt slightly unfulfilled. His movies (be it ones he starred in, wrote or directed) have all largely been flops or small enough to be ignored. His TV show Everybody Hates Chris was a modest success, but easy to forget. Rock’s stand-up has always been his calling card, even as his place in the cultural pantheon was being replaced by the aforementioned Chappelle, or Louis C.K.
In a sense, Top Five, with its heart-on-sleeve romantics, feels like Rock trying to negotiate or navigate what it means to live as a creative (and famous) person in 2014. His character Allen is rich but troubled, he no longer seems sure of what’s funny and doesn’t know what to do next. Now, Rock isn’t exactly like Allen. For all intents and purposes it appears like Rock has his shit together in reality. But still, the uneasy feeling remains. This is Rock making the most true-to-life film of his career. And surprise, surprise: that’s why it works so well.
With all the divisive and, frankly, insane stuff happening at Sony and in the world right now, it feels nice to be reminded that sometimes film can be a way for a person to reconnect with himself and the rest of humanity.
So yeah, that’s my number one.