Never Just a Movie

Top Five (2014)

Paramount Pictures

I still can’t believe that the actor awarded the best of the year slapped a comedian onstage before he won. The over-discussed incident at the 2022 Oscars ceremony always made more sense as something staged. Watching the clip in the immediate aftermath, I guessed that it was a high-concept skit of celebrities playing themselves and acting out their grievances. It was the year’s most relevant way to make fun. 

But I suspended my disbelief for the more complicated, agreed-upon truth that the event was spontaneous and real and not funny at all. The evening had gone more absurd. The entertainers were no longer joking. Chris Rock was left with his face smarting while any counter-punching fell to the worldwide online chatter. 

Still, I could assume that this replenished Rock’s well of material for a new bit, or a movie where he could play a version of himself getting the last laugh. Rock’s honesty and daring when he talks about his personal life, as with any provocative subject of his standup, only heightens the anticipation of what he might create in response to things that happen to his celebrity. He’s good at stepping, wide-eyed and grinning, across the tripwire line that almost separates the artist from the art.

Well before the Oscars moment, Rock wrote, directed, and played a main character closely resembling himself in the 2014 film Top Five. In it, he declares, “I don’t feel funny.” It seemed to be an unguarded truth about more than just the character but also himself. Maybe Chris Rock simply mastered how to seem

I also still can’t believe that any successful artist working in the medium of comedy and film knows exactly where the show ends and the reality begins, though that’s also a blurred distinction for the vast unprofessional majority of us, releasing content on our own public profiles and poorly managing the authenticity. Our own amateur attempts at micro-celebrity might be the broader self-conscious meta problem that’s no longer funny. 

* * * * *

Andre Allen (Rock) wants to make thought-provoking films. In Top Five, Rock’s protagonist is a famous comedian, beloved for his lowbrow recurring character, Hammy, a bear who’s a cop. But he’s trying to change. He’s in his hometown of New York City to promote his new movie that’s not a comedy at all, but a drama about a Haitian slave revolt, called Uprize. We see a clip of Andre in tattered clothes angrily wielding a machete, and as part of his promotion, he carries with him a small Haitian flag. He tells Charlie Rose (playing himself) that he wants to make “uplifting entertainment.”

Andre is also a recovering alcoholic. He’s about to marry the person who helped get him sober, a polished reality television star named Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). Their relationship is shaky, upset further by the appearance of a young reporter, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who’ll spend the day with Andre for a piece in The New York Times. We first see Chelsea from Andre’s perspective through the bars of a wrought-iron gate, waiting for him with a smile and a glow that could light the city block. The gate opens and Andre greets her with suspicion (a Times critic has burned him in the past). Still, a wall has been breached.

Otherwise, all eyes are trained on Andre. Heads turn as he passes, the name Hammy is shouted out from unseen directions, and demands for photos appear around every corner. Along with fame, Andre must contend with the additional weight of racism, casual and not, that comes with being a Black man in America, aptly depicted in a scene when he’s recording a satellite radio spot and the white DJ asks him to put some “stank” on it. 

Later, at a press junket, an interviewer asks, “How can you keep your private life separate from your public life?” We don’t hear Andre’s reply, only the jump-cut next question. Rock the filmmaker skips it, too.  

Because it’s from Chelsea that we’ll get real answers. She’s in recovery herself—four years sober, like Andre. She uses the program language that requires “rigorous honesty.” His character will share with us what’s otherwise private. So will the representative of the media who’s crafting his image. This only raises the expectations that we, the audience who think we know, are getting the real Chris Rock.

Swirling around all of this is a live and humming 2014 New York City. The film viscerally captures a specific feeling of walking through the streets of Manhattan. Like its setting, the picture is in constant motion, light on its feet as its players cross bustling sidewalks, slide in and out of the backseats of cars, take calls while pushing through busy offices, recharge in family apartments, and burst back out of lobby doors to return to the perpetual flow of the metropolis. 

Andre and Chelsea float together through the city in summer. They encounter a group of schoolgirls in the park playing Double Dutch. We intercut between their various conversations and the girls’ jump rope, set to the see-sawing horns of the early-90s hip-hop classic “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” by Digable Planets. Andre hesitates as the girls taunt him to “jump in already!” But Chelsea does first, gracefully in perfect step.

Meanwhile, in their ongoing exchanges, Andre theorizes that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed because the original Planet of the Apes, released the day before the leader’s assassination, was about the white man’s fear of a Black planet.

“It’s just a movie,” Chelsea responds. Andre counters, “It’s never just a movie.”

This debate is where we started. The scene loops us back to the film’s opening, where we hear Andre say at the fade-in, “I’m telling you, everything means something.” We didn’t have the context at that point, only a vague sense of the argument we were dropped into. 

We laugh even as we’re reminded that Andre Allen as Chris Rock isn’t here for jokes, and that Rock as Allen is here, in part, because this isn’t just a movie.

* * * * *

The premise-defining statement about not feeling funny has been lifted verbatim from another film a generation prior. The main character’s last name, Allen, is also a full nod. 

Top Five is not a remake of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980). But Rock doesn’t hide the fact that he’s borrowing heavily from it, either, to the point that it becomes a clear, if loose, take on that film. 

Stardust Memories is about a famous comedic filmmaker who wants to be taken seriously. It’s written, directed, and starring the very person it seems to be about at the height of his popularity. All of its winking meta moments portray an artist lost inside his own work, with its own acknowledged borrowing from Fellini’s (1963), the seminal film about a film meeting in a dream with its maker.

I could say more about Allen, whose several beautiful cinematic moments I’ve needed to relinquish from my own top-five lists, but any benefit of the doubt I once afforded him has corroded by now, and, along with it, any protection his already-autobiographical art had from his life. Revisiting these films without its maker feels like a form of denial.

Whether or not Chris Rock has compartmentalized art and artist, he has praised Allen’s work. His movie and Stardust Memories have parallels in theme and story, with the key divergence in Top Five being the narrative thread of recovery. 

There’s a scene in Stardust Memories from one of the protagonist’s early funny films. The gag is that the man’s hostility has escaped his psyche and manifested as a roaring bear in the woods. This hostility bear has already mauled to death a few people from the character’s past. The clip of the embedded film is followed by a Q&A session at a festival honoring the filmmaker. Later, having crept into the movie we’re watching, the bear yanks away a fan who provides the meta commentary that it’s like we’re all characters in one of his satires.

In Top Five, Andre tries to escape his own manifestation: the juvenile but publicly-adored Hammy. We see the bear in the film-within-the-film clips, too, with a pop-up cha-ching graphic of its box-office gross. But we also get the bear’s dark side in a flashback from Andre’s drinking days as he attacks a fan in the street, still in the Hammy costume. 

His bear is here to play a still more crucial role. Andre’s hostility won’t be a simple gag; it will reappear one final time.

After Top Five, Chris Rock leveled with the public in more serious ways. He stopped doing the purely comic films of his early days like CB4 (1993) and Pootie Tang (2001). He hosted the Academy Awards in 2016 during the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, when zero people of color were nominated in any of the acting categories. It became his job for the evening to shed light on Hollywood’s diversity problem while being hilarious, a balance he pulled off. He’d need his cooler head six years later. 

But in the meantime, he returned to standup, where things got more personal. In his special Tamborine (2018), he’s more than just his usual provocative and uproarious self. A lengthy middle bit chronicles his recent divorce. The special’s title comes from his learned lesson that, in a relationship, you sometimes have to step back and be the person in the band who plays the tambourine. Rock confesses his infidelity and states, without the relief of an immediate punchline, “I wasn’t a good husband.” He talks about his own addiction, one that arguably takes more humility to acknowledge than a dependence on alcohol or drugs: porn. He talks about getting help. He says he’s trying to get things right. 

Candor is familiar to modern standup. The onstage comic is a straight shot of the person, upfront and center. There’s a general audience assumption that the storytelling is nonfiction; what’s said into the mic must be true. It’s supposed to be funny because it is. 

In Top Five, Andre mentions that Richard Pryor is the most honest human being. Tamborine echoes that pioneering comic’s willingness to share personal pain onstage. Other recent acclaimed routines reach similar new depths of frankness, moving farther away from observational humor and giving Pryor a renewed prescience. Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation (2017) has an extended bit about the death of his spouse, and how he broke that news to their daughter. Appearing within months of Tamborine, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (2018) dismantles the very idea of standup in the middle of her set by laying out the tension-and-release fundamentals of standard joke-telling. After some pointed lines about the inseparability of Pablo Picasso’s troubling masculinity from his art, Gadsby shares that she doesn’t want to do comedy anymore. She explains that, as a lesbian in a bigoted environment where she suffered abuse and trauma, she always lived as the tension embodied, and can no longer provide the release of a joke at her own expense. 

These comedians are onstage because they’re not feeling funny. Delivering these bits requires that the comics themselves are morally and intellectually more rigorous—people not performers, the artist and not only their art. Audiences expect something less performative. It needs to be for real.  

Rock has already carried his standup’s candidness and courage with him into his movie world. It provides him with a partial pass on what’s not exactly Oscar-bait, immersive acting in Top Five. His line delivery often seems just on the verge of a crack-up or a fourth-wall break with a signature shrug. But it serves him well not to disappear fully into the role. He has found a way to look comfortable mixing Andre Allen with Chris Rock so that we can join him on the cusp of his wink to the audience. The self-awareness is an asset. And it brings with it a fuller heart.

* * * * *

When Andre returns to his old neighborhood, an older man clutching a bottle in a brown bag yells to him, “Hey, Hollywood!” He airs grievances about why it’s only funny when comedians are mean, and then hits Andre up for money. The man is played by the legendary Broadway showman Ben Vereen, here stripped of any song or dance. When Andre walks away, he reveals to Chelsea that the man is his father. She doesn’t follow up with another question. 

Indoors, within the cocoon of the family living room but without the father, Andre loosens up. The cozy group is composed of past and then-current members of Saturday Night Live, the show that turns comics into household names, as it did Rock. We see the measure he takes of his life changes, in the loud teasing inside the door and later in the quiet discovery of his flask that he finds stashed behind the radiator. One relative, Paul (Michael Che), mentions in a blink that Andre stopped being funny after his mother died. But the focus stays on the laughter as they share their own top-five lists of hip-hop MCs that give the film its title.

The visit back home pulls Chelsea and Andre closer. Soon after, they’re kissing in a bar bathroom. The intimacy is followed by the reveal that Chelsea has been writing under the pen name of the Times critic who mercilessly trashed all of Andre’s films. His wall thrown back up, Andre questions whether this whole time she’s just been a character. 

This summons his bear. Her betrayal has triggered the comedian’s relapse. In a supermarket, Andre drinks a beer straight off the shelf. But what sends him into a final thrashing fury is an aisle display of Hammy, whose name and image he realizes is being used for a branded beer. The hostility has been commodified and turned on him—his attempt to be a better, rehabbed person mocked, attacked, or, in standup parlance for a great performance, killed.

Andre lands in jail. He hits a new bottom that will require more humility and more help.

Chris Rock never went to jail. He never had a product sponsored by his character in, say, Grown Ups, though he’s said that he wrote Top Five while shooting the second installment of that inane Adam Sandler series. Rock has yet to throw a tantrum or otherwise lose his cool in public, though shortly before this film’s production, he told Jerry Seinfeld in a 2013 episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee that he admires people who have breakdowns because they get to wipe the slate clean. As a chummy sort of payback, he cast both Sandler and Seinfeld as themselves at a strip club for Top Five

But these discrepancies can’t prevent the convergence of the filmmaker and his onscreen alter ego. The art and artist join unmistakably at their beloved Greenwich Village club, the Comedy Cellar. Inside the underground space, Andre listens to a young comic tell a joke about the tropes of slave narratives. At an imitation that could be mocking Andre’s own dramatic and unpopular film, Andre finally, deeply, laughs.

It’s a laughter infectious for everyone, inside the film and out. The moment glows with the hearth of something more than just a movie.

Andre’s devilish grin completes his transformation into Chris Rock. He steps onto the Cellar stage, himself unfiltered, his blazing talent unleashed onto the live, present crowd. 

Later, Andre explains that the final push to get him up there again came after his stint in jail where he met DMX (another celebrity playing himself). Locked up in the opposite cell, the rapper, notorious for his real-life jail time, shared with Andre his aspirations to sing. He proceeded to do so very badly. The meaning to Andre is that this talented rapper shouldn’t be singing. And a talented comedian shouldn’t be taking himself too seriously. 

It’s the grace and self-effacing epiphany of the film. You might grow if you accept that you can’t, and shouldn’t, do everything you want.

* * * * *

I tend to wince like I’ve just been slapped when I’m reminded of the director of Annie Hall and Stardust Memories. Or the Best Actor winner who hit Chris Rock at the Oscars. Or the broadcaster accused of sexual harassment who conducts the opening interview in Top Five. Or the increasingly destructive rapper of chart-toppers like “Famous,” who provides music and gets a co-producer credit here. Or the gold-plated tycoon reality TV star, who, in certain intangible ways, looms unmentioned over this film in 2014, the year before his celebrity metastasized from New York City to the geopolitical world at large. Each of these men has demonstrated, to widely varying degrees across a very broad spectrum, their belief that they can do whatever they feel like without consequence, operating on a devastating solipsism peculiar to prominence in our age. In proximity to them, Chris Rock stands out as the unusual celebrity who doesn’t insist on his own unique reality. 

Andre tells his fiancée, after she reveals her insecure need for affirmation, “You’re addicted to this shit.” The shit is not booze or pills, but fame. That most lauded of drugs where the psychoactive effects are shared in a feedback loop between the user and the dealer.

Chris Rock may not have fully kicked this particular habit himself. One day, he’ll return to an awards stage and likely relish the applause. He’ll appear in more star-studded movies, and had plans at one point for a sequel to Top Five. But if he’s truly anything like Andre, he’s also learned to practice moderation. His movie shows a nimble self-awareness that accompanies the transformation of his character, and a real meaning—because he’s already told us that a movie always has one—for himself as a person.

As for the material that partly inspired all of this, Stardust Memories doesn’t achieve this same level of maturity. There’s no recovery and no actual journey the protagonist takes. There’s no change. Woody Allen’s character hasn’t hit the bottom of his hostility, nor has he undergone as much self-examination as his metaphysical musings purport. We’re left with a narrative limitation only reinforced by hindsight context.

The element of recovery ensures that Rock’s work, by contrast, is more grounded. He can stand on the meaning and the message that art resonates all the more when it’s revealed as the creation not of a magician or a divine genius or a celebrity brand, but a human being.

So I can believe Top Five all the way to its fairy-tale ending. Its artist brings the sincerity to bridge the world shared with others, and the one in which he alone makes the reality. This might help him endure long into our strange century. It might be just the kind of truth that’s meant for a laugh.