Everybody Loves Chris
America’s narrative is that we are the world’s leading nation as a classless, racially diverse melting pot. The brutal reality of our system is that black people have been the burned bits at the bottom of the pot. While the oppressed have known this all along, many of us white folks were under the illusion that the Civil Rights movement and political correctness have eradicated racism and injustice for good. The blatant police brutality in Ferguson and elsewhere and courts that let killers of black lives walk away scot free has shaken that misapprehension.
After many months of hearing multiple accounts from the well-documented Ferguson travesty, at the end of 2014 comedian Chris Rock came out with a comprehensive interview for New York magazine providing intelligent soundbytes on the year’s political and social issues and wrote an editorial about the appalling lack of diversity in Hollywood.
This perfectly coincides with the release of his baby, Top Five, which he wrote, directed, and starred. Going by Rock’s account, he went through total hell to get this film off the ground, producing a trailblazing piece too bold for the establishment.
While it’s true that its budget was a modest $10 million, Rock’s film had as its cheerleader the powerful, influential EGOT-winning Scott Rudin as its executive producer and Paramount as a distributor who paid over $20 million for promotion.
Rock, who has never been content with “only” being a stand-up comedian, has attempted multiple times to create film vehicles for himself. On his prolific press tour, Rock has stated that his primary influences for Top Five were Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. The only problem is that Rock is simply not a filmmaker.
Top Five adopts the episodic structure of the aforementioned films, but misses the layered comic and tragic surrealness. Instead, Rock’s screenplay is an awkward hodge podge of sophomoric sitcomish storylines and a series of “profound” themes delivered via a bunch of monologues and one-liners mooched from his stand-up acts and talk-show interviews.
The only two times I laughed were at the most shamelessly lowbrow moments. The film’s only successful scene takes place in a hotel room where Rock engages in a threesome with two prostitutes that with the use of cocaine and the arrival of Jazzy Dee (Cedric the Entertainer), turns into a bizarre freaky nightmare. The other funny moment comes when Rosario Dawson lunges a tampon of hot sauce up the ass of her white and condescending soon to be ex-boyfriend (who is addicted to anal sex similar to what can be found on sites like www.nu-bay.com and turns out to be gay).
The latter has drawn controversy. Vulture’s E. Alex Jung melodramatically claimed that that moment alone undercut the whole film (which he liked). Yet I find Rock’s retort to Terry Gross, who also complained about it, disarming because it’s another case of his flip-flopping. First, he brushes it off with a “chill out, it’s just a joke” only to shift to an indignant stance where he states that he’s the only black comedian not to gay-bash.
As much as I am willing to defend this scene on the grounds that funny trumps good taste, I must point out that the subplot as a whole is limp. Intended as an eleventh hour story arc to give Chelsea (Rosario Dawson) agency, it just made her character seem whiny and even more unappealing than a monotonous holier-than-thou mouthpiece for the moral of the movie.
I suppose that part of my dislike for this film is due to my dislike of Chris Rock’s duplicitous public persona. As counterculture as he may present himself, his career trajectory is quite mainstream. He gained fame when he joined SNL in 1990, although it did not give him a chance to shine. It is true that SNL is an old white male oligarchy, but Rock simply isn’t an actor.
As apart as he says he is from the Hollywood boys’ club, he has dabbled in as mainstream a movie as one can get, playing in Adam Sandler travesties. Top Five isn’t the first time Rock has performed triple duty in films; his previous efforts, all of which were poorly executed modernizations of classic Hollywood comedies, vanished quickly. The only difference with Top Five is that it is better marketed to seem “important.”
For every standup milestone like the grave economic differences between being rich and being wealthy, there are also lazy bits that reinforce tired stereotypes, like how ignorant niggers ruin everything for society in his repertoire. It was that routine that brought Rock back to fame, even elevating his status, after the unremarkable post-SNL years.
This contradictory legacy gets conflated in Top Five. Rock lacks the nuance or technical prowess to turn this into an asset, instead letting it sink his venture.
The most glaring dishonesty is his assertion that he is purposefully not being funny. Every third shot cuts to Rock shamelessly mugging or wipes to Rock hamming it up as Hammy the Bear or in any other flashback. There is a gratuitous amount of time of his character making the other characters laugh their ass off (makes you hope that folks were paid by the laugh).
The other performers aren’t any better, save for Cedric the Entertainer who totally raunches it up grotesque Blaxploitation style, as a lecherous, slimy, uncouth pimp. The few talented comedians such as Tracy Morgan or Sherri Shepherd were given the flimsiest of parts (I have to wonder if Rock did that on purpose), while unfunny folks such as Leslie Jones, J.B. Smoove, and Kevin Hart (his protégés) were entrusted with broader, showier roles.
I have a suspicion that Rock intentionally chose the least charismatic actresses for his leading ladies so as to not be upstaged. If Gabrielle Union is a tad bland as Rock’s fiancée, a publicity driven reality star, she acquits herself way better than Rosario Dawson, who is definitely no Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow.
Although 2014 was a disappointing year for movies and the whiteness and maleness of the Oscar nominees is disheartening, there were more high profile black themed movies last year than in the last few years. The fact that most of them were subpar is exciting in a way, as it means that black filmmakers have been given an arena in which to fail, which is almost exclusively a white privilege. Let’s hope that moviegoers can forgive and continue to support film endeavors of black actors, writers, directors, etc.