Whatever it is Americans want out of life — it's something we struggle to precisely define ourselves — it was nowhere in evidence on December 3, when a New York grand jury failed to indict the police officer whose chokehold killed Eric Garner in July. We all know we live in a fractured country; none of us wants to think it is a truly broken one. We live in a time when the name "Ferguson" stands for a million brutal inequities that can seem impossible to change or correct.
Chris Rock couldn't have planned it this way, but his exuberant comedy Top Five, opening at just the right moment, is like an airdrop of candy over the country. That's not to say Rock glosses over serious issues, or, for that matter, hits them hard. But Top Five has its finger on the pulse of right now, not just in terms of race in America — the movie is less about race than about just plain people — but in terms of how we're all doing the best we can, with no money, no jobs, a buttload of creeps in Congress and dashed hopes of anything coming close to equality or fairness. The story of a hugely successful comedian and actor — played by Rock himself — who turns away from comedy because he just doesn't "feel funny anymore," Top Five is a reminder that as often as comedy fails us, sometimes it's our best hope for resuscitation.
Rock's Andre Allen has made a ton of money and risen to great fame playing a crime-fighting furball known as Hammy the Bear. But something in his life is cracked, and comedy doesn't fill the gaps anymore. He's just released a more-serious-than-thou historical drama about the Haitian Revolution (it's called Uprize), and he's about to tie the knot with a reality-TV star, Gabrielle Union's Erica, a woman he seemingly loves, though he's not quite comfortable with the fact that she's turning their wedding into a media circus. On his movie's opening day, he's set to be interviewed by a New York Times reporter, Rosario Dawson's Chelsea Brown. The two wander the city, walking and talking, laughing and bickering, trying to suss out which elements of their conversation are typical star-vs.-journalist BS and which might actually be some kind of truth.
Andre and Chelsea swing by to see some of Andre's old friends and relatives, among them Leslie Jones' combative — and hilarious — Lisa, who has her doubts about the direction Andre's personal life is taking, and Tracy Morgan's crazy-marvelous Fred, who appears to have been beamed from Planet Zontar just to sprawl on a couch and make totally out-there observations about Andre's prosperous present and his rougher, rowdier past. As Andre and Chelsea pass a housing project, Andre makes a surprise reconnection with another figure from his past (Ben Vereen) — the sequence ends with a hint of both bitterness and wistfulness, the sort of complicated moment that even a more seasoned star-director-writer might not be able to pull off.
Top Five is lighter on its feet and more piercing than either of the two movies Rock has previously directed, the clumsy 2003 black-president fantasy Head of State and 2007's more graceful I Think I Love My Wife. Its jokes unfold in layers: They're rarely just race-related, or political, or connected to the universal needs and wants of human beings — often they're all three at once, and catching every nuance can be a challenge. Rock has packed the movie not so much with "black" humor as with humor, period.
There's a smattering of crude humor in Top Five, most of it extremely funny and good-natured. But the viewer's greatest joy will come from watching Dawson and Rock together, mapping out the city on foot and by hired car, claiming it, block by block, as their own.
Dawson and Rock, the central figures in this wild wonderland, are a terrific match. Dawson, her eyes as large and expressive as a doe's, is a screwball Nefertiti. And Rock has barely aged a whit in the past 10 years. He still has the goofy gangliness of a teenager, thouhis jokes are purely adult in their sharpness. At one point, Andre and his pals wonder aloud if Tupac, had he lived, would be a senator today. Andre offers the suggestion that he might just be "playing the bad, dark-skinned boyfriend in a Tyler Perry movie."
Either is possible. Rock knows that as well as anyone. There are two scenes in Top Five in which Andre is grabbed and beaten by cops — these are brief, fleeting sequences, edited to be fast and funny, and though you may not believe it until you see them, they actually are. Their honesty is cutting. This is Rock saying, "Here's the reality of being a black man in America." These two scenes, wedged casually into a comedy, are more effective than any earnest, straight-faced statement Rock could make. That his movie is mostly a work of joy makes them even more potent.