Top Five (2014)

three star
Sometimes a single, ill-advised scene can destroy an entire movie-going experience. There’s such a moment in the (excuse the pun) back end of Chris Rock’s magnum opus Top Five that involves hot sauce, a tampon, and a butthole. Without getting any further into the particulars, the scene begins with moderately cringe-worthy views on bisexuality & heterosexual prostate play that then veer into vile, regressive, homophobic territory almost immediately. In a dumb Farrelly Brothers comedy from over a decade ago the scene might be somewhat excusable or at least easy to ignore. In 2015, however, it just sours what was otherwise the most impressive work of Rock’s career so far.

What hurts so much about Top Five’s brief foray into casual homophobia (besides the hot sauce) is that the movie that surrounds it is so smart & so funny. Even once the sting of the horrendous gay gag wears off, there’s still an underlying sense of “they really should’ve known better” hanging in the air.  The rest of the film does a lot to cover up this ugly blemish, though. The movie’s single-day structure & use of flashbacks & interviews to piece together ideas about racial identity, sobriety, the nature of stand-up comedy, the highs & lows of fame, and the vulnerability of falling in love is a refreshing turn for a comedian whose talents have always been far too pronounced to be reduced to roles in dire films like Down to Earth & Grown Ups 2. Chris Rock wrote, directed, and headlined Top Five and you can really tell his heart was in this one. It’s the clearest his own voice has been outside of his stand-up specials & acclaimed sketch comedy show. That’s why it sucks so much that a single gag is its Achilles heel.

Of course, Rock has always been a button-pusher & there are bound to be people who can willfully overlook or even take pleasure in the regressive moment that soured the film for me. There’s certainly a lot to love. From the Hammy the Bear action-comedy spoofs to the beautiful image of Jerry Seinfeld making it rain inside of a NYC strip club, Top Five is packed to the gills with smart comedy writing and occasional gut-busting one-liners. The film itself even struggles with whether or not a movie’s surface pleasures can be overwhelmed by its political implications, supposing that “Sometimes a movie is just a movie,” a sentiment that is later countered with “It’s never just a movie.” Somehow, though, this level of self-awareness just makes its misstep hurt even worse.

I liked a lot of Top Five. The chemistry between Rock & co-star Rosario Dawson was lovely, the script was both intricate & refreshingly loose, the meta-text of Rock’s protagonist’s struggle with art & entertainment was on-point, the sequence where Rock’s protagonist bottoms out in Houston was gleefully dark, etc. It’s just a shame that a two minute sequence was enough to knock the whole thing down from Fantastic! to Pretty Okay for me. I guess I ended up siding with the “It’s never just a movie.” argument, a position I’m honestly not used to taking. It’s just difficult to ignore a fault so stupid in a film this smart. Also, after a long life of unhealthy Southern living, I’ve been accustomed to hot sauce being a trustworthy companion, a best friend, a culinary guiding light. It’s never been used to burn me so harshly before. That’s another offence worth getting chafed over, I assure you.

-Brandon Ledet

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