I caught Top Five on Sunday night in a half-filled theater in Williamsburg, where the audience greeted Chris Rock's new comedy with mild chuckles that eventually boiled over into a steady, recurring roar. The film begins gently, easing you into the specific world of a famous comedian named Andre Allen, a star beloved for his Hammy the Bear movies, in which he plays a crime-fighting bear known for his insipid catchphrase, "It's Hammy Time!" It may be moronic, but the Hammy franchise grosses $600 million worldwide, which is funny because it's actually pretty plausible.
Top Five unfolds over the course of a single, breezy day in which Allen (Rock) shuffles around NYC desperately trying to sell himself as a serious actor/director with his new movie Uprize!, a historical drama about a Haitian slave revolt. Nobody cares; they just want Hammy Time, and one of the film's best running jokes is that wherever Allen goes, you hear the incessant shouts and murmurs of "Hammy!" from passersby, at various volumes, always imprisoning Allen in his gilded blockbuster cage no matter what he does.
Allen reluctantly allows a New York Times reporter named Chelsea Brown (the marvelous Rosario Dawson) to accompany him as he bounces around town between interviews and last minute errands for his imminent wedding to a power-drunk reality TV star (Gabrielle Union), plus a pit-stop at the housing projects where he grew up (where we find Tracy Morgan on the couch).
Things get increasingly complicated and frustrating for Allen as the day grinds on, in ways that I won't spoil here. But by the end, when [OK ONE MINOR SPOILER] Jerry Seinfeld argues with a stripper at Allen's bachelor party, you'll feel fully immersed in his strange world of celebrity, and perhaps able to relate to its downside, which is something I didn't expect. It's got to be a challenge making a famous millionaire's inner turmoil something an audience can empathize with, but Rock somehow pulls it off. If you need further convincing, here are five more reasons to spend a day with Andre Allen:
Cedric the Entertainer: Allen's story of how he hit rock bottom is told in one extended, outrageous flashback to his visit to Houston in 2003, when he was a stand-up comic just hitting the big time. Cedric plays his handler for the gig, greeting him at the airport with a flashy smile and a Solo cup and promising to get him anything he wants (I couldn't even identify some of the exotic items on the menu Cedric rattles off), and Allen can't say no. The depraved circus that ensues over the next 24 hours is almost poetic in the telling, and Cedric is the flamboyant ringleader of all its mayhem. Come for the Rock, stay for the Cedric.
It's a surprisingly great date movie: Okay, given some of the lewd subject matter, it's probably not a safe first date movie, but if you sense your date won't be put off by some of the film's more ribald humor (as the Times put it, "raw, raw, raw"), you're good to go. Turns out that underneath all the outrageous jokes and inner turmoil, Top Five is a disarmingly sweet romantic comedy. And the ending is just perfect.
Justice is served with a bottle of hot sauce: You'll just have to see Top Five to know what this means, and once seen it can't be unseen. Bravo, Anders Holm, bravo. His role in Top Five may make him the butt of some saucy jokes, but it's sure to give his career the kick it needs.
J.B. Smoove: If you go around calling people "LD" and promising to "bring the ruckus," you'll be delighted to see that J.B. Smoove is all over Top Five, as Silk, Allen's incorrigible childhood friend and personal body-man. Any Curb Your Enthusiasm episode featuring Smoove is an automatic winner, and every Top Five scene he steals with his grinning patter is priceless.
It's not unlike an old-school Woody Allen movie, but bigger and blacker. Way blacker, obviously. But you can feel the best of Woody Allen's old New York movies echoing through Top Five, particularly Annie Hall and Stardust Memories, in which Allen also plays a tortured director who's struggling with his loss of interest in comedy. Rock is a self-avowed Woody Allen fan, and while Top Five is definitely a Chris Rock joint, you can sense the influence of Allen's heyday in the skeptical urban soul-searching of Rock's character, whose last name is not-so-coincidentally "Allen."
I could go on, praising Questlove's score and the shrewd cameos and Dawson's stellar work here, but the movie's not called Top Eight. Speaking of which, what are your top five?