Movie Review: Top Five (2014)
There aren’t many movies that make me think, “Thank God Adam Sandler’s arrived.”
Remember “Celebrity”? Kenneth Branagh plays a Woody Allenish reporter named Lee doing a magazine profile on a Hollywood star (Melanie Griffiths), and they visit her childhood home, where, in the bedroom, he makes a pass. She turns him down ... only to give him a blowjob. “There are many things to be said about this sequence,” Anthony Lane wrote back then for The New Yorker, “but you could not, with a clear conscience, call in cinema vérité.”
In “Top Five,” The New York Times sends reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) to interview former standup comic/movie star Andre Allen (Rock, homage alert), whose new serious film, “Uprize,” about a 19th-century Haitian slave rebellion, is opening that day, and who is getting married to reality-TV-star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) that weekend. Allen is against the interview, since the Times movie critic, Dave Nielson, has always slammed his films, including the hugely popular “Hammy the Bear” series (a man in a bear suit with a machine gun); but eventually he goes along with it.
Too bad. Because she’s the worst reporter in the world.
The worst reporter in the world
First, she shows up unprepared—without her tape recorder. Then she insists on retrieving it at her home (rather than using her iPhone’s built-in recorder) because that’s her lucky one. Then she spends half the day talking about herself and her problems. We get to witness one of those problems—her boyfriend, Brad (Anders Holm), who turns out to be gay, or bi, and who’s cheating on her. At that point in the movie, upset and humiliated, she actually walks away from Allen. She walks away from her story. He’s an alcoholic, she’s an alcoholic, but she walks into a liquor store and contemplates drinking.
Oh, and guess what? It turns out she’s Dave Nielson; she just writes the reviews under an alias.
Think about that for a moment. The New York Times has a beautiful—and I mean drop-dead gorgeous—Latina movie critic, but they choose to hide her identity behind a stodgy white male persona, because ...? I’m at a loss. Is it 1952? 1919? Should we check to see if A.O. Scott really looks like Eva Mendes but the Times thinks “white, dumpy, male” sells better in the digital age? No offense intended, A.O.
And it’s not just reporters or the media that writer-director Rock doesn’t get. He doesn’t seem to know movie stars, either. He doesn’t know the movies. I assume “Hammy the Bear” is a takeoff on Rock’s successful “Madagascar” movies, but those don’t look like crap; “Hammy” does. There’s no way that thing’s making $600 million worldwide. And the interview takes place on the day “Uprize” is released? Isn’t that a bit late? And Allen thinks that “Uprize” will do well at the box office? Is he that clueless? Even “12 Years a Slave”—which isn’t about a slave who killed white folks—opened in only 19 theaters. Allen is lucky “Uprize” is opening anywhere. He should know that.
Throughout the first two-thirds of the movie, I kept thinking “Fake fake fake fake ...” like Elaine in that episode of “Seinfeld.” Then Jerry Seinfeld arrives and saves the final third.
Chris Rock’s problem
There are a few good lines throughout. I like this Bob Newhartish conversation, for example, as Allen is doing promo and explaining “Uprize” by phone to some radio station somewhere:
Allen: It’s about the greatest slave rebellion of all time.
Allen: Slave rebellion.
Allen: It’s when slaves rebelled.
Then the plot kicks in again. He and Chelsea argue, make out, nearly have sex in a bar bathroom; then he borrows her phone and discovers she’s his arch-nemesis Dave Nielson; then he discovers no one’s going to see “Uprize”; then he gets drunk in the aisle of a mom-and-pop market, winds up in jail, is sprung, heads to his bachelor party at a strip club.
That’s where he meets Seinfeld, Sandler and Whoopi Goldberg, who, all sunk into middle-aged senescence, give him straight shit on marriage. It’s funny. Seinfeld “makes it rain” at the strip club. He accuses a bikini-clad stripper of taking his wallet, and when she asks where she would put it, he says, in that classic Seinfeld manner, “Do I have to say it?”
After that, Allen goes through with the marriage to a reality-TV star and lives happily ever after.
Kidding. The movie is set up so he doesn’t. We know that going in. In fact, we know exactly how it’s going to end. Earlier in the movie, Chelsea talks up the Cinderella complex:
Chelsea: Cinderella did what girls do when they want to see a guy again.
Chelsea: She left something behind.
Make a note: She’ll leave something behind. And she does.
At the strip club, she reappears, takes Allen to a comedy club, where he gets up on stage for the first time in years—he’d avoided it because he’d never done it sober—and kills, with, one assumes, old material. Then they say their tearful goodbyes. Then in the backseat of the limo he’s going through the bachelor party gift bag and finds something she left behind: a Cinderella-ish shoe. And he tells his right-hand man, Silk (J.B. Smove, who, cameos aside, is the best thing in the movie), to ... Actually, I think he just says his name. We know what’s going to happen. So Rock just ends it. It’s a good end to a bad movie.
Here’s Chris Rock’s problem. Actually, he has two. The first is he’s not a very good actor. He’s just not. The second is the difference between what made him a star (stand-up), and where he’s currently placing his star (the movies).
The best stand-up, including Rock’s, is generally funny because it’s true. People get up on stage and say the shit that everyone’s thinking but no one’s saying. Or they reveal the absurdities/hypocrisies of race (Rock), modern culture (Louis C.K.), the Bible (Ricky Gervais), relationships (everyone), that most of us haven’t thought of. But the absurdities/hypocrisies have to be true or they’re not funny. Stand-up is a delivery device for truth-telling.
The movies are a delivery device for wish-fulfillment fantasy: good beats evil, boy gets girl, etc. On screen, we’re tougher, braver, sexier than we really are. Most movies lie, in other words. The best movies don’t. Think of Woody Allen’s best. He gives us “Most of us need the eggs,” and “You have to have a little faith in people” and “You’re God’s answer to Job.” Rock needs to revisit these movies if he’s seriously interested in taking over the mantle. Because Chris? We really do need the eggs.