Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Top Five

Halfway through Top Five (2014, dir. Chris Rock) I began to recognize echoes of an earlier film, Stardust Memories (1980; dir. Woody Allen).  The echoes were both of what the films are about—comic artists who want to make serious films—as well as in style.  Both Rock and Allen employ self-deprecating humor and satire in their comic routines and films, and in Top Five Rock’s willingness to make fun of the character he plays is especially evident. I don’t mean that Top Five borrows directly from Allen’s film, but the earlier film was clearly an influence.  I thought this insight, when I had it, was a good one, but soon after discovered that a number of reviewers had pointed it out as well.  It’s made expressly clear in a 2014 New Yorker profile of Rock which focused on the film:  “One of Rock’s inspirations was ‘Stardust Memories,’ the 1980 Woody Allen movie, in which Allen played Sandy Bates, a comic director who was sick of comedy. Early on, Rock has Andre repurpose Sandy Bates’s best-known line. ‘I don’t feel funny,’ he moans, and he spends the rest of the movie—which unfolds in New York, in the course of a day—explaining himself to a Times reporter, played by Rosario Dawson, while simultaneously coming to his senses, or trying to.”[1]

Oh well, so much for an original insight.

Rock is a wild and fierce comedian with an independent streak.  He speaks his mind, and sometimes runs into trouble as a result.  In this film, he aims at the entertainment industry, the American obsession with celebrity, and the typical arc of a famous actor’s career.  In the film he plays a comic actor named Andre Allen, who got his start as a stand-up comic.  He becomes most famous for playing a cop in a bear suit (“Hammy the Bear”) in three wildly popular films.  Now he is more interested in serious work and is about to premier a new film about a slave rebellion in Haiti.  Rock quickly disabuses us of the notion that Andre might be a great filmmaker.  The short scene we see from his slave rebellion film seems pretty bad.  The real focus of Top Five is on Andre and where the course of his life will go.  His great days as a comic actor may be over, and he’s no longer willing to wear bear suits.  His career, in fact, may be on the wane.  Maybe as a result his agent has scripted a marriage for him with a celebrity housewife that will keep him in the spotlight.  This is a step in Andre’s transformation from a star with talent to a celebrity.  His agent tells him that given the current state of his career he may soon find himself on “Dancing with the Stars,”  where actors with faded careers go before fading away entirely.

The real dilemma for Andre is whether he allows the celebrity vortex to suck him up or whether he can regain control of himself and retain some vestige of his own identity.  The fact that he is a recovering alcoholic complicates matters.  A reporter, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) who wants to interview him follows him around through much of the film, asking questions, gradually attracting his interest.  Then he learns that she has been writing fiercely negative reviews of his films for the New York Times under a pseudonym.  Part of the interest for me in this film is Andre’s hazy awareness that the films he has made aren’t really very good and that he has to choose between the arc of celebrity that his agent has crafted for him and his own personal satisfaction.

I liked this film.  I identified with the concerns that Rock’s character is grappling with.  Top Five harkens back to a much earlier film, the Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan’s Travels (1941), in which a director famous for his comic films decides he wants to be a “serious” director.[2] 

[2] The New York Times review of this film by Manohla Dargis also linked it to Sullivan’s Travels.  See 

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