Top Five

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/14/14 00:38:21

"Chris Rock & Rosario Dawson are a great top two."
5 stars (Awesome)

It took roughly a minute of "Top Five" for me to realize that I really hadn't been anticipating this film enough - it is, after all, built around Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson hanging around and verbally jousting with each other, and I like both of them a lot. It's not much longer than that before it's clear that we're getting both of them at their best, and that makes for a formidably funny movie.

The pair are doing this walk-and-talk because former stand-up comedian Andre Allen (Rock) has a new movie coming out - Uprize!, a dead-serious dramatization of the Haitian revolution - and the New York Times has managed to get reporter Chelsea Brown (Dawson) a chance to tag along for the day. But while Andre just wants to talk about the movie, the public at large is more interested in his upcoming wedding unscripted-TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) or if he'll ever return to his blockbuster series about a cop who is also a talking bear.

This is Rock's movie in more ways than one - he not only writes, directs, and stars, but it's easy enough to look at the broad strokes of Andre's character and guess that it's pulled from his experience - but Rosario Dawson is just as crucial to its success, and maybe even more important in front of the camera. That first scene establishes her as a cheerful, optimistic counter to Allen's cynicism, but it's never unbalanced: Chelsea is obviously smart, and the fact that she's generally positive doesn't mean she can't push back at Andre. She gets to regularly take over the movie as well, and those bits are terrific; it's easy to see a movie about a writer trying to pry something out of a reluctant interviewee that's just as full and funny as the one where the emphasis is the other way around.

The emphasis is on Rock, though, and that's more than fine. There's a hostility to Andre that's also present from the first scene, and Rock's able to spit the reasoning behind it out in a way that seems very natural, even when it's supposed to feel hollow and unreasonable. He makes Andre a distinct enough character and personality that when we see clips of Hammy Bear or Uprize!, it feels like Andre playing the part rather than Rock, and for all that he's an angry guy trying to be serious, the scenes which pull affection and comedy out are especially fine, just the right way to make us feel like we're seeing him unguarded.

There's also a murderer's row of funny and talented people who pop in and out of the movie. Gabrielle Union has a perfect bead on the comic absurdity of the star of Erica's sort of show, enough that it's even more impressive to see the character shift gears later on. J.B. Smoove is a constant presence as Andre's oldest friend and bodyguard Silk, both pulling off a running joke and walking the line between pragmatic and charming. And then there are the guys who are maybe there for a scene or two but make the most of it: Kevin Hart. An absolutely hysterical Cedric the Entertainer. Tracy Morgan. Leslie Jones. Ben Vereen. Anders Holm as Chelsea's boyfriend. Two or three guys who pop up at the end are hysterical even for those of us who don't like their usual shtick (they're worth being great surprises).

And as good as Chris Rock is in front of the camera, he's even better behind it. There may be a couple patches in the script that aren't quite perfect, but I love the way he approaches his movies like a comedian, emphasizing things to make sure you get them early on but still managing to circle around later and get them to pay off in a big way. There's a brilliant example of that involving bottles of hot sauce about midway through the movie where what starts out as a purely self-contained joke gets a funny call-back later on and then that serves as a set-up for the really big gag, which is some carefully-built comedy that's still funny throughout. He's got exceptional skill at letting something run throughout the movie - Smoove's bit never gets sour and we hear just enough passers-by yell out "Hammy!" to get how that must bug him. The jokes themselves are often raunchy or willing to bite the hands holding checks for product placement, and Rock packs them in tight, even if they sometimes have to hide in corners or share screen-time with something a bit heavier.

Rock and Dawson haven't always made the greatest choices over the course of their careers, but working together on this project is a good one. It's funny, occasionally surprising, and almost always sharp without being cruel, easily one of the most entertaining things playing right now.

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