Thursday, January 1, 2015

"Top Five"

 3.5 / 5 

In Top Five, a comedian well-loved for his "funny movies" serves as the writer, director and star in a Manhattan-set exploration of the ways in which an artist feels limited by the public perception of his work and finds New York City is a much better place to explore his anxieties, failures and exasperations than the false exaggerations of Los Angeles.

Is it a surprise that the last name chosen for this fictional character is Allen?

Chris Rock may seem an unlikely successor to Woody Allen, but Top Five is an Woody-inspired examination of the neuroses, loves and career of an actor that owes more than a little to movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan. It compares most favorably with them, replacing jazz with hip-hop and allowing for a jolt of black culture that makes Top Five feel unexpectedly fresh and uncommonly intelligent, particularly given Rock's big-screen resume of movies like Grown-Ups and Pootie Tang.

Top Five takes place on a single day that finds Andre Allen in New York on a publicity tour for his latest film, Uprize!, a dramatic exploration of an 18th century slave rebellion in Haiti.  It's the film he wanted to make, but not the film his audience wants to see; they'd prefer another one of his implausibly popular Hammy the Bear cop-bear buddy movies (there have been three so far).

After an appearance on Charlie Rose's show, Andre's publicist wants him to do an interview with The New York Times, which leads him to reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a last-minute substitute for harsh Times critic James Nielson, a writer who hates everything Allen has done.

Meanwhile, out in L.A., Andre's fiancee Erica (Gabrielle Union) is making final preparations for their imminent wedding, which she has turned in to a Bravo reality show, and insists that the alcoholic Allen be at his star-studded bachelor party later that night.

As they make their way around Manhattan, Chelsea tries to get Andre to open up, promising a fair and candid interview that will make him look good, while Andre tries to make sense of his career and his ambitions, while crossing paths with his extended family.

It's a whirlwind day, and a whirlwind movie -- fast, incisive, surprisingly accessible considering that the problems it ponders are the specific ones of an elite, self-absorbed man whose concerns are hardly representative of his audience or, judging by what the film shows us, his own family.  But, much like Woody Allen's 1970s work, Top Five is appealing precisely because its leading man is willing to expose his insecurities in ways that make him feel familiar and real, even to those who have never wed a reality TV star, been arrested for alleged rape, or fretted about a public image.

Top Five may try a little too hard, integrating the different set of problems that Times reporter Brown faces, particularly in her choice of men.  When Top Five focuses on her, the comedy works well, but the film loses a little focus.

Still, this is a movie not only inspired and informed by Woody Allen's work but that emulates its jazz spirit fully (despite the hip-hop vibe) -- it appears to be loosely structured, improvisational, meandering, but that only hides how tightly constructed and carefully plotted it is.  Top Five may not be the weightiest of year-end films, or the most cutting of sophisticated comedies, but its charms are real and it's a surprisingly accomplished work from a most unexpected source.

Viewed Jan. 1, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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