Dave Chappelle perfectly summed up the pleasure and pain that comes with fame in his 2004 special For What It’s Worth. The Showtime stand-up recording put the humorist front and center in the middle of his Comedy Central heyday and (almost) huge payday. He was quickly becoming a household name thanks to Chappelle’s Show, but even he was unprepared for what happened with that damn “I’m Rick James Bitch!” phenomenon.
In the special, Chappelle talked about going to Disneyland with his kids, and out of nowhere: “Hey! Hey! Rick James Bitch! Rick Jaaames Bitch!” Right in front of his kids. Wow. All the people that Chappelle made happy were also likely making him feel miserable. All the money he could have made, all the notoriety and appreciation for his work, probably meant nothing to him while his dignity, humility, and family were deteriorating rapidly. And the public response was one of misunderstanding. That buffoon, that weirdo, how could he walk away from $50 million dollars?! African retreat? Make your jokes, funny man! By the end of Chris Rock’s Top Five, you may actually feel pity for people like Chappelle, or Rock for that matter
Top Five is Chappelle’s story. Or rather, it’s an extrapolation of Chappelle’s experience and that of many like him. It’s a romanticized, melodramatic breakdown of modern celebrity, as told through the experiences of a star stuck in catchphrases and the media machine. At times howlingly funny, at others harsh and on-the-nose, Top Five is an arty and sincere hangout with an incredible cast of characters.
Andre Allen (Chris Rock, directing, starring, giving himself some open and amiable material) cannot go anywhere without being called out. “Hammy!” is shouted at least once every minute. Allen, like many stars born from humor, started as a stand-up and made a name for himself with a large franchise that forever eclipsed his other accomplishments. It’s happened to Chappelle, Robin Williams, and even Adam Sandler. Allen made Hammy the Bear, a buddy-cop flick about a talking police bear and his partners, and two sequels later on. That sounds pretty awful, but it paid big, with $600 million in global revenue. He’s in a state of artistic and emotional crisis, a former alcoholic afraid of falling off the wagon and of the thought of being incapable of humor without the sauce. Allen’s surrounded by aggressive, mostly young and white fans repeating his old jokes over and over. His passion project about the Haitian Revolution is tanking, and he’s in a sham engagement to a Bravo TV star (Gabrielle Union).
Through an extraordinary day in New York, while being interviewed by a cool girl New York Times writer (Rosario Dawson), Allen accounts for his successes and failures. He recounts a particularly nasty experience in Houston involving two hookers and a shameless promoter (Cedric the Entertainer, all out). He recounts the highs of performing in night clubs and sneaking into his early movies with public audiences. This is well-worn celebrity trappings stuff, but seldom does this kind of story feel this relaxed or in-the-know. Rock gets the industry, and he knows the pains of ambition being squished under sacks of money. He manages to strike a solid balance between hilarious jokes and urbane theatrics. Never has he seemed this confident and mature. Even when he leads himself astray with one too many asides (we get very quickly that his fiancée is talentless, so there’s no need to pummel her, Rock) or redundant themes (the Cinderella metaphors are sloppy), Rock keeps you in the fold while he thinks. It’s like watching a day well spent within this particular Hollywood microcosm.
Part of this feel-good mood has to do with Rock surrounding himself with enormous talent. Roll call: Top Five features J.B. Smoove, Whoopi Goldberg, Tracy Morgan, Kevin Hart, Sherri Shepherd, Ben Vereen, and cameos from SNL’s Leslie Jones, Michael Che, and Jay Pharaoh. Even Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld show up and turn in some of their most honest work in years. Also, the last 10 minutes has a surprise hip-hop cameo of the highest comic order. Trust me. On top of the deliriously likeable cast is the solid music direction from Questlove himself; the soundtrack features cuts from Public Enemy, Kanye, Jay-Z, Scarface, Rakim, and many more. It feels like Rock didn’t want to skimp on all the people and pop culture he loves, and it all fits somehow.
Parallels have already been drawn between this and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, and that’s about right. It’s about a worried stand-up and has a total New York City style. Watching Rock emerge from a Bulgari in a low-angle shot with cabs aplenty feels as fresh and classical as the city he’s in. There are also comparisons to be made with Louis C.K.’s naturalistic and screwball FX sitcom, Louis, with Rock loosely pulling from his city-style exploits in entertainment; Rock even uses NYC’s famous The Comedy Cellar for a scene, a mainstay in C.K.’s show. Yet, most surprisingly, Top Five feels like a French film, like something from a less manic or whimsical Godard or Truffaut. There’s real life here, and Rock wants to find it. Top Five, at its very best, is close shots of people walking and talking, shooting the breeze with irreverent stories, moral dilemmas, and pop cultural colloquialisms. It’s inside baseball from a specifically famous and African American perspective. This is Rock’s Day for Night: a jovial reflection on the business he lives in.