If you’re my age (38), give or take 8 years or so, you’ve seen Chris Rock’s entire career. You saw him on Saturday Night Live in the early 90s. You saw him break out with his fellow SNL alums soon thereafter. You may have even seen him in Beverly Hills Cop II. You cringed when he starred in Adam Sandler movies, and basked in his comedy specials. And odds are pretty good that you’ve been waiting for him to catch a big break. Sure, he’s had some modest successes, but nothing befitting someone as funny and intelligent as Chris Rock. It may have taken until he was almost 50 years old, but his masterpiece finally arrived in the form of Top Five.
The consensus on Top Five is that it gives off a Woody Allen vibe. With the strolls through New York City, the male-female interaction and sexual tension, and a comic actor yearning to be taken seriously, those comparisons are perfectly apt. But Woody Allen isn’t the only influence Rock wears on his sleeve in Top Five. The ghost of Richard Pryor looms large as well, with Rock putting all of himself out there in the film (even if it is only semi-autobiographical). It’s an enormous part of what makes the film so endearing, especially to those of us who have enjoyed Chris Rock’s work for so long.
And there are the other obvious influences- Rock’s friends. The cast of Top Five reads like a Justice League of 1980s and 1990s stand-up comedians. Jerry Seinfeld, Cedric the Entertainer, Tracy Morgan, the aforementioned Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, JB Smoove, Brian Regan, Kevin Hart, and Jim Norton all make appearances. Rock’s pal Louis CK only appears as a photo on a wall but you can’t miss him. With that much talent together, it’s only natural that the film would be a riot. It delivers on all fronts there, most notably in an unforgettable orgy flashback featuring Cedric as Jazzy Dee (he’s the motherfuckin’ MAAAAAAAN in Houston).
The other aspect that drives Top Five is that it’s an exceptionally well-written film. The structure is perfect, but it leaves room for Rock to Rock it up as Hammy the Bear, postulating that Planet of the Apes led to Martin Luther King’s demise, and give us glimpses of hilariously over-the-top Rock in a Haitian slave film. It has heart and it works as a romantic comedy, if only lightly, while leaving room for a nifty twist on the Cinderella myth.
Add it all up and it’s as good as Rock has ever been in a career that we all wish had been more acclaimed. It really is hard not to look at his career and wish there had been more. And perhaps there’s more good stuff on the horizon. He’s recently mentioned that he has art house tastes. That would be an amazing turn to his career. But for now, I’ll settle for Top Five.