Perceptive moviegoers know that they can pick up clues about the movie they’re about to see by the trailers selected to show before it. Catching a prestige piece of Oscar-bait starring a crew of distinguished British thespians? You’ll see trailers for costume dramas, highbrow literary adaptations, and films with many shots of beautiful but desolate landscapes. About to see an action-adventure or sci-fi flick, e.g. Guardians of the Galaxy? You’ll see lots of explosions, CGI, and comic book superheroes swinging/flying to the rescue.
When you’re attending a movie like Top Five, written, directed, and starring Chris Rock and featuring a galaxy of today’s best African-American and Latino actors and entertainers, you’ll see (as I did) trailers for not one but two upcoming movies starring Kevin Hart (who has a small but very funny bit as the Chris Rock character’s agent in Top Five), along with the historical Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma.
The Kevin Hart movies conform to what the late actress Ruby Dee once said about black characters in popular entertainment: they can help the white characters achieve their dramatic goals, either as sidekicks or teachers, but they can’t (or only rarely) be the prime movers in the drama themselves. In the coming months you’ll be able to see Kevin Hart redeem the socially awkward, clueless groom-to-be Josh Gad in The Wedding Ringer, and also see Hart prep an even more clueless Will Ferrell for the rigors of prison life in Get Hard. Expect lots of gay panic jokes about prison bitches.
This is not to dis Kevin Hart nor either movie, both of which look pretty funny. It’s to say that Hollywood still pours black characters into narrowly defined molds, and (particularly in comedies) relies on stereotypes that are only partially redeemed by making the white characters dumb and dumber. Essentially, Hollywood is still making feature-length elaborations on the bathroom scene in 1976’s Silver Streak, where an exasperated Richard Pryor tries to teach Gene Wilder how to pass as black so as to avoid detection by the movie’s bad guys. In this multi-layered joke, Wilder’s disguise and lame attempts to be “street” wouldn’t fool anyone who wasn’t legally blind - but in the movie it works because the movie’s characters see only what they expect to see.
Top Five, a smart, original, virtuoso piece of moviemaking, casually breaks any number of these molds while also being laugh-out-loud funny, unexpectedly touching, and disturbingly relevant to the current moment in race relations. It’s a Sweet Smell of Success/Sullivan’s Travels/Stardust Memories for the age of reality TV and self-conscious, social media-savvy celebrities, while also being a sweet and sexy rom-com. And if that doesn’t pack in enough entertainment, it features three minutes of Chris Rock doing standup - and anyone who has seen him knows that that’s something special.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a comedian who has made it big in Hollywood with an action-movie franchise playing Hammy the Bear, a super-cop in a bear suit. (This shows how hard it is to satirize Hollywood.) Rather than make Hammy the Bear 4, the now clean-and-sober Allen has made Uprize, a Serious Film about a slave uprising in Haiti that is destined to sink like a stone.
Allen is about to marry Erica Long (a fabulous Gabrielle Union), a Bravo reality-TV star who has turned their planned nuptials into a ratings-bait bonanza. Eager to promote his movie, Allen consents to be interviewed by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (a fantastic, revelatory Rosario Dawson). Brown has secrets and dramas of her own, including a somewhat too convenient discovery that her white boyfriend Brad (Anders Holm) is cheating on her - with a man! It’s a distracting but funny and very frank subplot that displays Rock’s penchant for uncomfortable truth-telling.
Ditto Allen’s visit to his boyhood home and homies, including the dad (Ben Vereen) who disdains his “Hollywood” son - but not enough to not touch him for a loan that we know will never be paid back. Allen, guilty over his success, is uncomfortable everywhere and insecure without the comforting haze of alcohol and drugs. He doesn’t want to make funny movies any more but that hasn’t turned off his sharp comic perceptions on everything from President Obama, our supposedly post-racial society, and the coded racial messages of Planet of the Apes. If Rock isn’t always the most subtle actor in the world, he’s a top-notch screenwriter and director.
That’s evident in the rapid-fire montage after Allen slips off the wagon and smashes up a supermarket. Don’t blink or you’ll miss the police kicking him while he’s on the ground and putting him in a chokehold as they drag him into the police car. White people like me, who can afford convenient amnesia about the epidemic of violence against black men until it’s shoved in our faces (as it has been these past few months), don’t know what Chris Rock knows: violence and the threat of violence are always there and have always been there - even for someone who is rich and famous, like Andre Allen (or Chris Rock).
I could say a lot more about this movie, like the incredible work of an array of rappers and comedians (including JB Smoove, DMX, Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, Sherri Shepherd, Taraji P. Henson, Gabourey Sidibe) and hysterical cameos by Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, and Adam Sandler playing themselves. This is the best Adam Sandler performance I’ve seen; granted, it’s the only one I’ve seen since 50 First Dates.
I could talk about the Preston Sturges/Aaron Sorkin-speed walk-and-talks between Rock and Dawson that are models of the smart, snappy dialogue we hardly ever hear in the movies any more; I could talk about the evocative location work in New York City, but I’ll let you discover Top Five’s pleasures for yourself. Don’t be scared that this is a “black person’s” movie; it’s a conscious person’s movie, and a lovely surprise for the holidays.