In Top Five, Chris Rock plays a stand-up comedian who's graduated into movies with a moronic franchise in which he wears a bear costume; after three installments, he's decided to make a sober historical drama about the Haitian slave rebellion of 1791. We're supposed to read this as autobiographical, I guess, yet in Rock's own filmmaking ventures, he's proved himself fully capable of hitting a line drive down the middle, writing movies that are funny but also smart and socially engaged. Head of State (2003), his directing debut, featured plenty of slapstick and broad gags, but its populist satire of presidential politics had real teeth. I Think I Love My Wife (2007), a grown-up comedy of manners about marital infidelity, took as its model no less than Eric Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon. And Good Hair (2009), a wide-ranging documentary about the black hair-care industry that Rock produced and starred in, explored modern African-American identity with a level of insight and social nuance that Spike Lee might have envied.
Top Five is Rock's most accomplished work yet, a truly personal story whose comedic riffs on love, race, sex, and celebrity are carefully woven into a credible romantic plot. (It's the sort of thing Rock aspired to but couldn't really deliver with I Think I Love My Wife, mainly because he was remaking someone else's story.) The comedian, Andre Allen, is trying to promote his new Haitian drama, though it's constantly eclipsed by his upcoming marriage to a sexy reality star (Gabrielle Union), to be broadcast live on the Bravo network. Faced with the disconnect between his lofty creative ambitions and the crass exploitation of his personal life, he spends a day touring New York City with Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a no-bullshit Times reporter who wants him to give her the unvarnished Andre Allen—and who, one quickly realizes, is the real woman for him. Their extended walk-and-talk ranges from their shared experience as recovering alchoholics to Andre's crackpot theory that James Earl Ray was driven to kill Martin Luther King by seeing Planet of the Apes.
There's a lot in this movie that I can't relate to, partly because I'm not black and partly because I'm not famous. (Of the two, I probably have a greater chance of becoming black.) But Top Five distinguishes itself most by exploring a situation very few people can relate to—being black and famous. Recording a promo for a radio station, Andre seethes as the DJ prods him to "put some stank into it," eventually lapsing into an expletive-laden ghetto version that climaxes with an emphatic "BEE-OTCH!" When Andre escorts Chelsea to a cheap apartment building to meet his friends from the old days, he's accosted outside by an elderly man (Ben Vereen) who disdainfully addresses him as "Hollywood" and then hits him up for money. When Chelsea asks about the man, Andre replies, "That was my father." With Top Five, Rock has assimilated one of the most important paradoxes of storytelling: when you create something that's completely and honestly your own, everyone gets it.