Review: Chris Rock’s “Top Five” easily one of the top movies ever about stand-up comedians

Chris Rock said he came up with the idea and started writing the screenplay for Top Five during idle time on the set of Grown Ups 2. If only all or even any of his other cast members could reach a similar epiphany!

All comparisons to Annie Hall aside, Rock also has said Top Five is closer in spirit to Richard Linklater’s films than Woody Allen’s, and specifically cited the Before trilogy of slice-of-life duets with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. In fact, Rock performed his own onscreen conversational dance with Delpy just before this in 2012’s 2 Days in New York, which Delpy also wrote directed.

Find your inspiration all around you.

Rock takes that lesson to heart and puts it on screen. He condenses Top Five into a single day in the life of Andre Allen, a stand-up comedian from NYC who became a movie star and now has decided he wants to be taken seriously — even though his new film about the Haitian slave rebellion is opening as a dud (his agent, played by Kevin Hart, warns him that “this thing flops…we’re talking Dancing with the Stars“) and he’s about to get married to a “reality” TV starlet (played by Gabrielle Union).

Dre’s best-friend/bodyguard (J.B. Smoove) informs him by midday that he’s agreed to be followed/interviewed by a reporter from the New York Times. Never you mind that that reporter looks like Rosario Dawson and is in fact a freelancer who also writes for Cosmo and other publications under various nom-de-plumes and insists on recording all of her interview for a newspaper profile via Flip cam?!

And all of this is threatening Dre’s ongoing recovery from alcoholism.

Dre says he doesn’t want to go back to stand-up comedy (shades of Eddie Murphy), is jokingly called “Mr. Ankle Bracelet” (shades of Tracy Morgan, who appears as one of his immediate family members), and trying to shake his successful role in multiple comic crime-fighting Hammy the Bear movies (shades of Adam Sandler’s Funny People parallel-universe movies, and now also Michael Keaton’s Birdman!).

This particular day in Dre’s life involves incessant promotional obligations for his Haitian slave rebellion movie Uprize, including multiple stops inside Sirius XM’s satellite radio studios, phone interviews with press outlets across America, a Q&A with students and Charlie Rose, and a hotel junket with other media — if this somehow is the reason Top Five┬ánor Rock are nominated for Golden Globes, then it’ll only be the latest chapter in the escape from logic which the Hollywood Foreign Press Association represents.

His particular Friday may not have been a good day, but it allows for flashbacks to other not-so-very-good days. We see Dre first hit bottom from drugs and alcohol in a wild scene on the road as a touring stand-up in Houston in 2003 (note that Dre claims to have four years clean and sober, not 11), with Cedric the Entertainer as the local man who makes things happen and Bruce Bruce as himself as Dre’s middle act. We also see into the history of the Times reporter’s unhappy relationship with her boyfriend, Brad (Anders Holm).

Rock draws out real and surprising performances from the many comedians he employs in cameos and smaller roles throughout the film, from the big names who show up at his bachelor party — Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopi Goldberg — to the comedians playing the Comedy Cellar when he swings by that night (Ardie Fuqua, Lynne Koplitz and Wali Collins).

There are surprises, too, considering the timing of the movie’s release.

A Cosby reference clearly edited down to remove more praise for him, but a warning from Seinfeld that’s left in and could be used for/against Cos if its inclusion in the script wasn’t so coincidental. An incident with the NYPD caught on camera. Even more things I’m not going to mention so you can see, experience and process them for yourself.

So happy to see Rock capture Fuqua, Koplitz and Collins onstage crushing with their own material; Fuqua, especially, seeing as how he continues to make a slow recovery from the fatal New Jersey Turnpike crash this summer that almost killed him and Morgan.

That montage at the Comedy Cellar is among the best stand-up committed honestly to film. And Rock himself as Dre is so assuredly funny and quickly brilliant you wonder what Dre was worried about the whole time he said he didn’t want to return to stand-up.

In the opening scene, Dawson’s reporter and Dre are walking and talking in the city’s Greenwich Village, and their debate includes the thoughts: “Sometimes a movie is just a movie…sometimes a joke is just a joke.”

And sometimes it just takes a while to find your voice and learn how to express it, whether you’re a stand-up comedian or you’re that same stand-up comedian looking to capture his own essence on the big screen. Chris Rock has finally figured that out. And we’re all more fortunate for it. If only his Grown Ups 2 co-stars could reach that same epiphany.

That’s some rigorous honesty.

Top Five is rated R and opens in movie theaters nationwide today.

See the trailer for Chris Rock’s Top Five.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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