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CINEMA: The Reincarnation Of Alvy Singer

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TOP FIVE (2014, directed by Chris Rock, 102 minutes, U.S.)

Buskirk AvatarBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC There is a pretty wide swath of agreement that Chris Rock is one of the funniest guys alive, so why has it taken him so long to produce a decent movie vehicle for himself? Since stealing scenes from Eddie Murphy in 1987’s Beverly Hills Cop II, Rock been a fixture on movie screens but almost never in something worthy of his talents. (The one exception was his turn with Julie Delpy in 2012’s 2 Days in New York. And maybe Pootie-Tang.). Rock’s best vehicle was his old HBO talk show The Chris Rock Show (the white guy-centric talk show world sure could use him again today) so it isn’t surprising that Top Five scores not by finding the right character for him to embody but by letting Chris just be Chris.

Or Andre Allen, who is clearly a stand-in for writer-director Rock in the same way that Alvy Singer was a stand-in for Woody Allen in Annie Hall. (There’s a little Stardust Memories in there as well.) The set-up shows Andre as a comedian in a mid-career crisis, trying to stay sober and sane as he traverses New York City with a beautiful New York Times reporter named Chelsea (the always-engaging Rosario Dawson) who is writing a profile. Bonding over their AA experiences, Chelsea demands a greater honesty from him than the typical PR-savvy snippets, leading Andre to share with us what being an African American superstar is really like.

This allows Top Five to wander as wide as Rock’s comic aim can reach, from flashbacks to his life as a road comic, bad big screen blockbusters and the unimpressed manner in which his family back home treats him. The film’s casual knowledge of black culture is refreshing as well, as with the callbacks that run throughout the film with characters naming their top five rappers. Rock has also upped the electricity by giving a group of fantastic black comic actors a chance to shine, including Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s J.B. Smoove as Andre’s bodyguard, Kevin Hart as Andre’s ambitious agent and Tracy Morgan as the comedian’s disgruntled brother. King of the scene-stealers is the great Cedric the Entertainer as Jazzy Dee, Andre’s Houston handler. Jazzy Dee is a baller who can supply Andre with drugs and women but is still polite enough to ask if he can steal the coat hangers in Andre’s hotel room.

Not every scene is revelatory but there is an intelligence and wit to the proceedings that separates the film from the broad popular fare that predominates in black cast comedies. (Tyler Perry gets derided here as a fate worse than death for black talent.) While this is progress, I can’t help but wish Rock’s comedic targets were a little more progressive. Woman fare particularly badly, from the prostitutes who demand to get paid and Andre’s reality TV-obsessed fiancée to the savvy Chelsea herself, a top shelf reporter who ends up making out with her subject. J.B. Smoove’s character makes a recurring joke out of catcalling woman in the street, which seemed to cause as much grumbling as laughter in the screening I attended. Chelsea’s closeted boyfriend with an anal fixation is another disappointingly old school target for Rock, unfortunately reminding us that the “Bro humor” of the Grown Ups franchise is Rock’s most recent box-office success. You can still get a laugh with jokes at the expense of gays and women but Rock should know revolutionary humor punches up the ladder of power, not down.

DAN BUSKIRK’S TOP FIVE

1. Public Enemy,

2. Run DMC

3. The Coup

4. Kanye

5. Sequence

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