Comedian Chris Rock’s shocking appearance in Spielberg’s 2001 masterpiece A.I. evoked a lynching victim — his black robot’s face smoldering, looking helplessly through bars of a cage. It’s still Rock’s most significant film work. Top Five, Rock’s new movie and fourth directorial effort, is merely presumptuous.
Plaudits for a mess like Top Five prove reviewers have fallen for Rock’s presumption. Playing a semi-autobiographical, fantastically successful comedian turned franchise movie star named Andre Allen (after Woody Allen), Rock inflates his hyphenate actor-writer-director whims and pretenses: Allen makes a slave revolt drama titled “Uprize” (based on Haitian revolutionary Dutty Boukman, who killed large numbers of whites in 1791) yet he’s not really politically minded. The unappreciated epic draws attention from a New York Times writer, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), whose assignment to profile him might be a hit job. Allen falls for Brown even though he’s engaged to Erica (Gabrielle Union), a reality-TV golddigger who does an explicit “blue” monologue. See, he isn’t political-minded at all.
More interesting than Top Five’s ill-conceived plot is Rock’s carpet-bomb publicity campaign, in which Q&As and op-eds from The New Yorker to The Hollywood Reporter featured his views on Ferguson and Hollywood’s racial bias; he even gave an Obama shout-out to please New York magazine’s liberal guru Frank Rich. Rock is today’s token black comic “genius,” and his glib humor is treated as social wisdom.
So less than three minutes into Top Five, Rock springs an Obama joke: “Lighten up, we have a black president now, Wake up and smell the progress.” This may ensure Rock receives great mainstream reviews but his movie cannot be taken seriously like that historically loaded Spielberg image. Top Five reduces black American cultural experience to vulgar sex and money jokes — the perspective Rock knows will sell. It is hideously photographed, indifferently edited, incoherently structured. Brutal, under-lit close-ups are hard on everyone, keeping black faces in shadow (their persons and social conditions disrespected), except for Dawson, whose strong physical presence recalls Maureen O’Hara’s handsome beauty. But Rock-Dawson’s relationship (combining the neurotic love story of Annie Hall with the celebrity resentment of Stardust Memories) shows little about black American ways of living that isn’t a comic stereotype.
Top Five misrepresents the truth of Rock’s career and social status beyond proving that he’s hip but out of touch. He’s hailed as “intelligent” simply because his stand-up act typifies the dubious “conversation on race” that editorial writers dream about. Not an actor, Rock doesn’t express, he blurts — mostly obscenities. The declamatory manner (as inept as it was in 2000’s Nurse Betty) is distant from an emotive style, incapable of character development. His jokey hectoring culminates in a questionable sequence where Allen’s black friends and relatives (mostly comics from Saturday Night Live’s stable) display assorted boisterous ghetto clichés. “Stay black! Keep it 100!” says Leslie Jones. (There’s more rapport in strip club cameo appearances by Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, and Adam Sandler.)
Amidst the rowdiness and bickering, each homie lists their top five favorite hip-hop acts — a new version of the cliché Negro Spirituals and “Lawdy” testimonies in old racist Hollywood movies. These “roots” are superficial — suggesting that Allen/Rock sprung solely from hip-hop impudence and that lewdness, greed, and sloth constituted African-American essence. Liberally using the N-word, Rock shocks some audiences into thinking he’s candid (what Allen calls “rigorous honesty”). Then he jokingly backs away with that fall-back love story, leaving plot and issues unsettled. Not original and heart-felt like Gillian Robespierre’s white female ethnic stand-up romance Obvious Child, or Martin Lawrence’s excellent Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Top Five ignores the motivation behind class mobility, a frequent ruse of pop stars. Rock depicts black pop success (his own success) as an inadvertent occurrence. What some people mistake for social commentary in his act is really just bratty social derision. (Jabs at showbiz racism — such as industry indifference to Uprize – are weak compared with Tropic Thunder’s insider jabs at Hollywood pretense.)
How could a movie this crude and artless be co-produced by musicians as aesthetically innovative as Kanye West and Jay-Z? Rock’s hip-hop japery is a result of that genre‘s juvenile, thoroughly commercialized basis. It wouldn’t suffice as a society’s new ethical standard even if Rock knew what that entailed. Naming top five acts as a pledge of solidarity is superficial showbiz solidarity — the idealism of a comic who has grown rich and coddled but hasn’t grown up. (He’s 49 years old.)
Rock has not reached the level of artistry achieved by the critically reviled Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler. Juvenile example: One plot incident involving a rival plays the old blaxploitation trick emasculating the white villain. Rock reverts to placating his base audience’s most puerile prejudices while arousing his white audience’s guilt and gullibility. (Only a fool thinks evoking Boukman is a laughing matter.) It’s a perfectly knowing Obama-era ploy. No wonder undiscriminating critics love it; Rock knows how to shuffle his race cards.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.