The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Top Five

As a stand-up comedian, Chris Rock is brilliant, biting, and powerfully observant. As a film actor, he hasn't been quite as successful. He's done some good work in small roles (New Jack City, Nurse Betty), and as a writer/director, he's made a couple of ambitious – if deeply flawed – pictures (Head of State, I Think I Love My Wife). Mostly, though, he's been stuck in a lot of low-grade garbage that's vastly beneath his singular talent. Think Down to Earth, Bad Company, The Longest Yard, What To Expect When You're Expecting and those awful Grown Ups movies. (Pootie Tang, which is somehow both awful and amazing, belongs in its own class.) That's what makes Top Five so special. This is the movie I've been waiting for Chris Rock to make his entire career. It's his stand-up sensibility, perfectly translated to film.

Rock, who wrote and directed, plays Andre Allen, a down-on-his-luck comedian. Andre once starred in a series of blockbuster movies about a crime-fighting bear, but his career went downhill following some substance abuse and legal problems. He's now engaged to a Real Housewives-esque reality TV star, Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), who is planning an outrageously expensive, broadcast-worthy wedding that he's not totally on board with. Andre is tired of being thrashed by critics and wants to be taken seriously in his career, so he's made an ill-advised “prestige film” that looks to be on its way toward flopping. Things are not so funny in the life of this funny man. That changes when he reluctantly agrees to be interviewed by Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a reporter from The New York Times. During their daylong trek throughout NYC, where he's on a promotional tour for the film, Chelsea gets Andre to open up about his life and career.

Top Five, like a great Chris Rock stand-up routine, takes on a number of relevant topics, including (but not limited to) relationships, sex, addiction, the pain of having one's work decimated by critics, family bonds, creative atrophy, and the often insulting “opportunities” for African-Americans in the entertainment business. The film has a perspective on all of these things that is sharply funny, yet it never feels like a filmed comedy set. Rock has managed to weave his viewpoints into dialogue and situations that feel natural. Added together, they paint a deeply personal portrait of a comedian, his inspirations, and his troubles.

Rock seems to have learned a thing or two from his friend Louis C.K. in terms of mining his own life for thinly-veiled fiction. There really isn't any doubt that Top Five is semi-autobiographical. While Rock may not have had these exact things happen to him, he is a stand-up comedian who shined bright on stage, could never quite find his groove onscreen, and is now (apparently) trying to seize control of his career. His comedy has always been best when it's delivering his unfiltered, no holds barred point of view on himself and the world around him. With Top Five, he's finally found a way to make that skill cinematic, and he anchors the often hilarious observations with a performance that is funny and angry in just the right measure. He knows Andre Allen inside and out.

Top Five also features some great star cameos and supporting performances, none better than Cedric the Entertainer playing a sizzurp-guzzling handler from Andre's past. He's only in a few scenes, but he steals every single one of them. Another standout is JB Smoove, as Andre's security guard/assistant with an eye for the ladies and a protective streak for his boss. To portray his family members, Rock has gathered some Saturday Night Live comedians, including Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Michael Che, and Jay Pharaoh. They get a lengthy, but meaningful, scene in which their characters bust each other's chops while picking their favorite rappers of all time. Watching so many funny people come together to play is a real delight.

But really, this is Chris Rock's show, and he develops authentic chemistry with Rosario Dawson (who has her best role in years). Walking and talking, analyzing and assessing, they work the magic that makes Top Five not just one of the year's best comedies, but also a brave and painfully honest look at the ups and downs of a comic genius trying to get his mojo back. I won't tell you what happens to Andre Allen, but Chris Rock has his mojo back with a passion.

( 1/2 out of four)

Top Five is rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

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