Friday, December 12, 2014

Top Five: My walk with Andre

Top Five (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, drug use, nudity, crude humor and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.12.14

Caught an interesting film the other day.

Concerns a disillusioned movie star who, having turned his back on a crowd-pleasing and profitable pop-culture franchise, attempts to re-invent himself as a serious actor by writing, directing and starring in a highly unlikely vanity project. And, to make things more intriguing, this film’s approach and directorial style are self-referential to the point where real life and reel life blur before our eyes.

Much as he hates to play along, Andre (Chris Rock) agrees to smile for the ubiquitous
cameras on behalf of his fiancée, Erica (Gabrielle Union), a realty TV star who insists that
her entire life take place in full view of her devoted fans.
No, I’m not talking about Birdman. As it happens, I’m referring to Chris Rock’s Top Five.

Yes, Virginia; it would appear that these Hollywood types have been reading each other’s mail again.

I mean, seriously, how does this happen? How many forlorn, anguished twentysomething women attempted to find themselves via thousand-mile solo treks through wilderness in the late 20th century? And within months of each other, we get biographical movies about both of them?

The celluloid gods do work in mysterious ways.

But I digress.

Although Top Five doesn’t have the ambition or directorial pizzazz of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, the similarities are strong ... as is Rock’s savage indictment of today’s vanity-laden, social media-obsessed excuse for popular entertainment. And, much the way Iñárritu employed cinematic legerdemain to add visual snap to his narrative, Rock employs the rat-a-tat delivery of stand-up comedy to tell the story of New York City-based comedian-turned-film star Andre Allen’s effort to re-cast his career in a manner that fans aren’t about to embrace.

The results are uneven, with some of Andre’s sidebar detours plunging too far into wince-inducing vulgarity, but there’s no denying the shrewd, insightful analysis of how we tend to devour our celebrities these days. We must remember that Rock masterminded four hilarious and sharply savvy seasons of TV’s Everybody Loves Chris, which unerringly skewered school- and family-induced teen angst while simultaneously being quite funny.

Andre (played by Rock), as far as his fans are concerned, hasn’t been funny for a long time. He abandoned stand-up years ago, seeking success in Hollywood; he found it in a series of slapstick Hammy the Bear action comedies where only his voice could be recognized beneath his fur-laden costume. Needless to say, the artistic returns have been limited. (Imagine if Tim Allen, having graduated from the improv stage, achieved fame solely as the voice of Buzz Lightyear in Pixar’s Toy Story franchise.)

Desperate for respect, and with the box-office clout to get his way, Andre has embarked on an extremely dubious project: Uprize!, a fact-based account of the successful 18th century Haitian slave revolt that is regarded as a defining moment in both American and European history. Needless to say, nobody wants to see the Hammy guy in such an endeavor, and Andre’s efforts to build favorable buzz have been difficult.

The events in this film take place during a single tempestuous day in Andre’s former Big Apple stomping grounds, as he resists the increasingly personal questions posed by New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who has been assigned to shadow him for 24 hours. Andre has nothing against Chelsea per se, but he has been burned repeatedly by the Times film critic, and therefore isn’t inclined to cooperate.

But Chelsea — armed with Dawson’s vibrant smile — is both persistent and probing, and Andre gradually thaws. What emerges, via a blend of flashbacks and stand up-style patter, is a portrait of a struggling comic who successfully rose from humble origins, succumbed too many times to adulation and temptation, and now hasn’t the faintest idea what to do with himself, or with his career.

Worse yet, Andre’s personal life has become a media circus, thanks to his ill-advised engagement to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), a reality television “star” who has orchestrated their entire relationship — and their upcoming wedding — as a Bravo TV series. The impact on Andre ranges from the merely embarrassing (as when Erica insists that all kisses take place not only in public, but on camera) to the downright creepy (as when she secretly swaps the wedding ring he purchased her for a glitzier upgrade, because it’ll “film” better).

All this unfolds both in “real” time, as Andre and Chelsea chat and flirt their way from East Harlem to the West Village, and in flashbacks that reveal key points in Andre’s life. The patter between Rock and Dawson ranges from circumspect to intimate, cheerful to angry, happy to sad. And, given the nature of this turbulent day — by design, in Rock’s script — both Andre and Chelsea are forced to confront all sorts of messy and uncomfortable details about themselves, their pasts and what drives them.

The film takes awhile to kick into gear, and matters aren’t helped by the first act’s strong reliance on vulgarity and racial epithets (an affectation that still makes me cringe, even when employed black-on-black). It’s almost as if Rock (as director) grows more comfortable with his material and approach as the story progresses, because we’re completely drawn into these characters by the third act ... which comes with several unexpected revelations.

Although an undisputed master of comic timing, Rock also displays deft physical timing; his sideways glances are hilarious, and his double-takes are to die for. At Andre’s worst moments — some constructed for hilarity, others horrifying for other reasons — Rock’s deer-in-the-headlights display of terror will make you laugh until it hurts.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the emotional tone shifts ... and Rock just as capably allows us inside Andre’s head, and we grasp how frustrated, miserable and precarious this man has become. Clearly, he’s one impulsive act away from self-destruction.

I must note, as well, that Rock (as scripter) has a strong sense of the temptations that reformed substance abusers must endure — particularly those surrounded by sycophants — every waking moment of their lives.

Dawson matches Rock in every scene, whether via quips, scathing put-downs or spontaneous flashes of candor. Her Chelsea is a richly complex character: an irresistible blend of flirty self-assurance and inner shame that her radiant gaze never completely conceals. She’s earthy, intelligent and genuine in a way that none of Andre’s hangers-on could hope to become.

Union is appropriately grotesque as the self-absorbed Erica, although we shouldn’t judge too quickly; even this character has a hidden side that emerges, during a key scene, and speaks volumes about what likely drives many (most? all?) of the narcissistic, vacuous dweebs who populate television and the Internet these days.

J.B. Smoove is constantly amusing as Silk, Andre’s best friend and handler; Ben Vereen has a brief but telling scene as Andre’s father. Anders Holm pops up as Brad, Chelsea’s boyfriend, who winds up the butt of a particularly, ah, painful prank that cannot be described in a family blog.

Cedric the Entertainer breaks the land-speed record for profanity as Jazzy Dee, a publicity agent who isn’t nearly as “connected” as he leads clients to believe; Tracy Morgan is oddly restrained and rather disappointing as Fred, one of the many members of Andre’s noisy extended family. Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Seinfeld and Adam Sandler pop up as themselves during a nightclub sequence.

The occasional slapstick touches are hit and miss. An early encounter involving Jazzy Dee and two hookers veers way beyond disgusting and scrapes the bottom of the grotesque barrel; alternatively, the payoff to Chelsea’s fondness for hot-hot-hot sauce is both dreadful and very, very funny.

The film’s title, by the way, refers to the popular social ritual of naming personal “top five” lists, whether cars, running backs or (mostly, in this case) hip-hop artists. The point is that one’s choices make strong statements about character, and can be quite revealing.

Settling into Rock’s wickedly salacious groove may be more than delicate mainstream viewers are willing to handle, but the payoff is worthwhile for adventurous spirits. Top Five is far from perfect, but it’s also a thoughtful and irreverent surprise.

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