Unless you’ve been under a rock lately (pun intended) you’ve no doubt caught at least one of these recent pieces written by Chris Rock, one of his many interviews or even one of the podcasts he appeared on during his current blistering pre film press run. This particular press run is hands down the greatest and best executed one I’ve ever witnessed in the Internet Era. I’ve seen pretty good ones in the past (“Dear White People” had an excellent one) but this one has far surpassed all of the others at every level possible and in every facet imaginable. Chris Rock is also supposed to be in Boston this morning for a 10 AM screening here in Boston as I was at the 7 PM screening last night. I was already curious to see this film but after reading hearing the Juan Epstein podcast with himself & Questlove (who is the musical director of “Top Five”), reading his Hollywood Reporter piece or his New Yorker interview it became clear that he was on a tear. Here were are a few days before the opening of his latest film and anticipation is through the roof. To make things even sweeter? Everyone who has seen the film absolutely loved it whereas reactions were largely mixed in response to “Dear White People”. Let’s discuss the film now, shall we?
The film is about a super successful comedian who has reached a crossroads in his career. After appearing in a high grossing blockbuster franchise he now wants to take on serious roles and abandon his comedic past. The film occurs during his opening day press run and it includes an interview with a journalist from the New York Times who wants to do a profile piece on him so she follows him around during all of his press stops and wherever else he may go to get background information on him. At the same time, the main character (named Andre Allen) is set to be married to a reality television star soon. Chris Rock uses this set up to drop numerous jewels throughout the film about racial politics, the idea of “progress” being made in America, the state of reality television, celebrity and how art isn’t just what it appears on the surface….And that’s all before we even see the cotdayum credits. That’s how I knew I was about to watch a great film. The opening sequence.
I have a theory about judging great films on their opening sequences. When I taught/helped people develop their own screenplays or scripts I gave them examples of films to watch like how young graffiti writers were given pieces to outline by older/more experienced writers. I often cited the opening 6 minute sequence of “The Social Network” which not only gives you an idea of what kind of person we’re dealing with in the protagonist but provides the viewing audience with all of the tools necessary to suspend belief from jump and be on board for the duration of the film. What it took “The Social Network” 6 minutes to do, it took the opening sequence in “Top Five” less than 3 to accomplish. Not saying it’s better, but it did it quicker and more efficiently. That’s also because it was written by a master comedian who has unlocked the key to timing, don’t forget. Most serious writers aren’t funny, even if they are capable of writing “funny”. The key to finding the “funny” lies in observation, you have to be able to see the big picture and then zero in on something then decompose it.
Afterwards? You can better dissect it, inspect certain pieces and edit it more efficiently. But you have to process it at rather quickly then truncate it into a punchline. This is why comedies typically run shorter than dramas. Drama can drag on while comedy needs to hit you quick. Observation/setup. Punchline/delivery. This film is chock full of masterful storytelling with perfect timing. Each story has the perfect amount of set up and pays off big and at the perfect time. You won’t even notice how long the movie is because it runs so quickly although it touches on so many different subjects throughout it. Pay attention to how quick the payoffs are and how the long setups don’t even seem like they took that long. It’s hard to make things seem simple…
Over the 100 minute duration of the film Chris Rock drops jewel after jewel in his script hidden within the interaction between the main characters played by himself and Rosario Dawson. The role of the media and the journalism game is also explored as are the politics of the film industry. One thing Chris Rock also did expertly was pick the right people to make either timely cameos or pick the perfect people to play minor roles. JB Smoove, Kevin Hart, Gabrielle Union, Romany Malco, Tracy Morgan, Ben Vereen, Hasaan Johnson, Cedric The Entertainer, Sherri Shepherd and Leslie Jones were all put in the perfect position to succeed. Even if they improvised their lines they were put in the perfect space where they could shine in their limited time onscreen. The cameos were all perfect as well.
One of the themes of “Top Five” is art is more than it appears to be on the surface. You must dig deeper and reveal the hidden (and not so hidden) subtext or consider the full context of when it was released. A lot of jokes or references in this film will be super meta if you’re paying attention and most people will only catch the obvious jewel being dropped totally letting the three extra “hidden” points that accompanied it. For that reason alone, this film is expertly crafted. It’s almost as if Chris Rock’s deep study of art, film and comedy has paid off in a way I didn’t even think was possible after he put out “I Think I Love My Wife” or “Good Hair”. He put a lot of himself into this film. In it we see why he’s so good in interviews being that WE’RE EVEN ENTERTAINED WATCHING A FILM WHERE HE’S ESSENTIALLY GETTING INTERVIEWED THE BULK OF IT. This is the same guy who wrote “CB4” 21 years ago, let’s not forget.
In conclusion? Go see this film as soon as humanly possible. Is it funny? Extremely. More importantly, “Top Five” is well written, well executed, extremely topical and an excellent film overall. If Chris Rock isn’t nominated for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Questlove doesn’t get a nomination for his role as musical director then it’ll be a travesty. There are so many layers to this film it’s insane. I can’t wait to get a digital copy of it so I can use it as an example of filmmaking that up & coming writers should aspire to. “Top Five” goes into wide release on December 12th. Go see it.