Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top Five

TOP FIVE                   B+           
USA  (102 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Chris Rock        Official site

Chris Rock, named the heir apparent to Richard Pryor early in his career after his HBO stand-up special CHRIS ROCK:  BRING THE PAIN (1996), while at age 34 he was also named “the funniest man in America” in September 1999 by Time magazine, Seriously Funny - TIME, which places a lot of pressure on a guy to have to be funny all the time.  With the recent suicide of brilliant comic Robin Williams, who often joked about his addiction, or before him Freddie Prinze, or Richard Jeni, one looks at the troubled childhoods of so many comedians who learn to make fun of themselves at an early age, developing a unique ability to make others laugh, often to protect themselves from real life traumas that haunt them throughout their lives.  But imagine the weight on one’s shoulders to be labeled the funniest man in America, where the spotlight is always going to be pointed at you even when you least desire it.  Rock has always handled his stardom admirably, maintaining a center of balance, refusing to serve as a role model while he satirizes and excoriates public figures onstage, as expressed in his 1997 memoir Rock This, “Why does the public expect entertainers to behave better than everybody else?  It’s ridiculous...Of course, this is just for black entertainers.  You don’t see anyone telling Jerry Seinfeld he’s a good role model.  Because everyone expects whites to behave themselves...Nowadays, you’ve got to be an entertainer and a leader.  It’s too much.”  In the open and freewheeling observational style of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, comedians are actors and stand-up entertainers that offer scorching social commentary, off color jokes, biting satire, and personal autobiographical revelations while also challenging the limits of free speech.  All the best comedians go through a comedy circuit where they do bits and pieces of their stand-up routines in small clubs, which seems to be the Holy Grail of comedy, as it receives far greater adulation and acclaim for actually being funny than movie roles, where Woody Allen has made over 70 motion pictures, but people still persist in believing that his earliest movies that were the closest to his stand-up routines were his funniest.   

To his credit, Rock loves all comedians, past and present, where he’s probably stolen from the best of them, but he continues to showcase his own unique flair onscreen, where his stream-of-conscious style of outrageous humor is simply hilarious, and this film, which he writes, directs, and stars in front of the camera, bears some autobiographical resemblance to Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980), where Allen’s character Sandy Bates is a highly successful film director known for making hilarious comedies, but confesses, “I don’t want to make funny movies any more, they can’t force me to.  I don’t feel funny.  I look around the world and all I see is human suffering.”  In Rock’s film, his character Andre Allen interestingly reveals he was high or drunk at the height of his professional comedy career, and now that he’s sober, the world doesn’t appear so damn funny anymore.  Trying to make more of a positive difference, he makes a serious film where he plays a Django Unchained style, real-life historical figure Dutty Boukman, the leader of a Haitian slave rebellion called UPRIZE, where he’s hoping to make a serious statement without comedy, but it’s flopping miserably as all anyone wants to talk about is Hammy, a crime-fighting bear, a character that he played in three successive blockbuster films, the last one grossing about $600 million dollars, even though he’s done with the role, insisting upon moving on, but reporters aren’t the least bit interested in his sidestepping their questions, knowing their readers can’t get enough of Hammy.  Shot in New York, where much of the film is openly walking down the streets, fixated cries of “Hammy!” can be heard throughout, much like the “Birdman” calls in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014).  No matter how much these guys try to ignore their past, it follows them everywhere, like an embarrassing nickname or a foul rumor they can’t shed, but the real surprise of the film is the complexity of the role written for Rosario Dawson as New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown, who spends a day following Allen around in order to write an extended profile piece on his life.  While he’s obviously at a crossroads in his life and career, where all the tabloids are writing about his upcoming marriage to be broadcast live on Bravo with Reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), seemingly matching the pattern of co-producer Kanye West’s marriage to Kim Kardashian, but what’s most intriguing is that Dawson’s more complicated life is exposed right alongside his own, a beautiful contrast to the vapid imagery seen in tabloid journalism, creating one of her best, most down-to-earth and intelligent roles since Spike Lee’s 25th HOUR (2002).    

Actually, the complexity of the secondary roles is equally outstanding, from his loyal bodyguard and chauffeur, JB Smooth as Silk, who’s been his longtime friend since childhood, to the outlandishly freakish role of Cedric the Entertainer as Jazzy Dee, the underground black market mayor of Houston, the guy who can procure anything, anytime, anywhere, where he’s also like a Get Out of Jail Free card, even though hanging around with him is what gets your ass thrown in jail in the first place, where in any other movie his scene-stealing antics would be the highlight, but this film features an overabundance of stars.  Kevin Hart’s scene as Andre’s manager is equally hilarious, where over the phone the two get into an N-word contest, where they delve into the idea of a black man getting into trouble for calling another black man the N-word, which unleashes a barrage of expletives that could only exist in black culture.  Perhaps the highlight of the film is when Andre brings Chelsea into the housing project where he grew up, where we meet Ben Vereen as his alcoholic father and Sherri Shepherd as his mother, where his old friends from the neighborhood are like a who’s who of black stand-up comedy, including Tracy Morgan (before his recent accident), Jay Pharoah, Hassan Johnson, and Leslie Jones, all playing to the journalist, each stepping all over the other to try to offer the real dirt on Andre, where it’s the only scene where the nonstop laughter feels so authentically natural, as this group takes such pleasure in teasing and ribbing one other, where it feels like they’ve been doing it for years, with the group wondering whether Tupac Shakur would be a U.S. Senator today had he lived, or maybe, as Andre suggests, he just might be “playing the bad, dark-skinned boyfriend in a Tyler Perry movie.”  It’s here that they happen upon the theme of the top five rappers of all time, which is like the listing for a nonexistent black hall of fame, yet each distinct choice offers an eye into each personality, as it’s like defining what it is to be black.  Within the context of this enveloping humor, there’s a surprisingly effective “smallness” brought into the film that simply hones in on Andre and Chelsea walking through the streets of New York while opening up about their lives, offering some of the more astute insight into alcoholism, where part of the recovery program is “rigorous honesty.”  Chelsea’s shrewd insight into her own life, remaining honest and forthright throughout, but also flirtatious and funny, is the unexpected star of the film.  While initially the two protect themselves with lies and carefully guarded secrets, but as the film progresses the guard comes down and what we’re treated to is an unexpectedly smart and comically inventive film that veers into an equally clever relationship movie that feels extremely close to the real Chris Rock, which as we all know is nothing short of amazing.     

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