'Top Five': Woody and Robert and Chris, Oh My

Chris Rock
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Chris Rock enters into Woody Allen territory with his new movie Top Five. During the opening scene, as Rock’s hero Andre Allen strolls down a Manhattan avenue engaged in lively debate with reporter Chelsea Brown (co-star Rosario Dawson), Chelsea mentions that sometimes a “movie is just a movie.” That sounds like an homage to Allen’s 1980 film Stardust Memories, in which two characters are discussing the symbolic significance of the Rolls-Royce in the movie they have just watched, and one of them agonizingly concludes that “it represented… his car.”
Andre Allen, like Woody’s Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories, and like Joel McCrea’s John Sullivan, from Preston Sturges’ classic Sullivan’s Travels (1941), has built a career based on making people laugh. For reasons that will become clear during the course of the story, he is no longer interested in that. He wants to make serious movies. Andre is about to release a movie about a slave uprising in Haiti.
Chris Rock has a lot to say about race and humor and culture, and about where an artist fits into that discussion. Especially a black artist. It’s hard to think about anyone better suited to talk about that right now. Though there may be certain lines of descent linking Top Five to Sturges and Allen, Top Five’s truest progenitor isHollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend’s ahead-of-its-time comedy from 1978 about a stereotyped actor trying to break free. Townsend brought a great deal of personal experience to his movie, and one suspects Rock does as well. Ultimately, two significant failings prevent Top Five from being a great movie. But there is more than enough quality material — material to make you laugh and material to make you think — to ensure that is remains quite good.
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