‘Top Five’: Toronto Review

Chris Rock brings down the house in this uproarious celebrity self-portrait

Standup star Chris Rock premiered his third feature at the Toronto Film Festival

“I don’t feel funny anymore,” claims Andre Allen, the alter ego of writer, director and star Chris Rock in his new movie Top Five, which marks the notorious comic’s third stint behind the camera. For the next 100 minutes, he then proceeds to be the exact opposite, piling on one hilarious sequence after another in a barrage of hard-hitting humor that has rarely been so successfully dished out in a single film. It’s like watching a first-rate standup routine transformed into fiction, or in this case auto-fiction, as Rock has more on his mind than just making us laugh, offering up a witty celebrity satire that doubles as a love story set during one long and eventful New York City day.

While the comedian’s 2003 debut, Head of State, was a more conventional-style effort, his 2007 follow-up, I Think I Love My Wife (which he co-wrote with Louis C.K.), already revealed a higher artistic ambition, updating the Eric Rohmer classic Chloe in the Afternoon to focus on a modern-day black couple living in the burbs. But with this latest work, Rock takes things to another level, letting his terrific stage monologues infuse a midlife crisis narrative that recalls the Manhattan-set tales of Woody Allen and the entertainment industry sendups of Larry David, except with dick jokes, n-bombs, Jay-Z and Kanye West. Following an electrifying Toronto premiere, Top Five should find its way to the top of many a distributor’s wish list, with both critical and commercial success more or less guaranteed.

From its opening sequence-shot, where Andre (Rock) and nubile New York Times journalist, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), engage in a walk-and-talk that ends in a perfectly timed gag involving a taxi, it’s clear that the film will be freer in form and more audacious in content than your typical broad comedy, giving Rock carte blanche to address his many grievances about Hollywood and the world in general.

We then cut to a talk with Charlie Rose, during which we learn that Andre was once a hugely successful comic and binge-drinking party boy, but has finally managed to get his life in check, quitting the booze and dating a beautiful celeb (Gabrielle Union) with whom he’s about to get hitched. Yet the more Andre follows the straight path, the further he seems to stray from his comedic roots, which is what Chelsea discovers as she profiles him during the release day of his latest movie – a ridiculous, self-serious drama about the Haitian slave rebellion called Uprize!.

The 24-hour structure is a simple yet effective tool, allowing Andre and Chelsea – not unlike Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy – to delve into one another’s backstories while growing closer as the day drags on. It also lets Rock bring in a boatload of other comedians for a series of riotous cameos, including: Kevin Hart, playing Andre’s n-word slinging agent; JB Smoove as his longtime bodyguard and confidant; Tracy Morgan as a hapless couch potato from the projects; and Cedric the Entertainer as a sizzurp-slurping promoter, who appears in a standout set-piece culminating in what’s best described as the “sperm bed" gag.

There are many other such highlights throughout, yet Top Five is much less a feature-length sketch comedy in the SNL tradition than it is an actual story with real characters and consequences. Andre’s battles with alcohol and his need to be recognized as a serious artist may seem like your typical bouts of celebrity vanity, but they also feel genuine, especially when we encounter his dad (the great Ben Vereen) during a rather unsettling scene set in the old neighborhood. And Chelsea is much more than just a sounding board for Andre’s nonstop banter, standing on her own as a single mom with a slew of bad relationships and sexual encounters (watch out for the “hot sauce" gag), and allowing Dawson to reveal a comic range we’ve never seen before.

The writing is strong enough that when the humor gives way to drama in the second half, there’s enough at stake to keep us interested, although Rock still has plenty of jokes in store for the finale, as well as some more walk-ons by fellow funny people Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg and Jerry Seinfeld. The latter is perhaps the talent who's ultimately felt the most throughout Top Five, which, like the Seinfeld show, is also the tale of a New York comedian who’s much better at being on stage than being in real life, and who’s forever trying to reconcile his two disparate selves.

Filmed in colorful fluid images by DP Manuel Alberto Claro (Melancholia, Nymphomaniac), and edited with pitch-perfect timing by Anne McCabe (Margaret), the movie provides a rich aesthetic palette that gives the Big Apple locations an almost magical feel, even if the action is always grounded in a certain reality. A soundtrack heavy with hip-hop hits – the "top five" of the title refers to one's five favorite rappers – is blended with an upbeat score by Ludwing Gorannson (We're the Millers) and Questlove of The Roots. Otherwise, the sound mix at the Toronto screening seemed iffy at times, although that may be because the theater was literally Rocked with laughter from start to finish.

Production company: IACF
Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, JB Smoove, Gabrielle Union, Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg
Director, screenwriter: Chris Rock
Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush
Executive producers: Tony Hernandez, Lila Yacoub
Director of photography: Manuel Alberto Claro
Production designer: Richard Hoover
Costume designer: Amy Roth
Editor: Anne McCabe
Composers: Ludwig Goransson, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson
Sales: UTA (U.S.), FilmNation (International)

No rating, 101 minutes