The oeuvre of Chris Rock may not be fully known in this parish. He was the African-American stand-up who made a packet out of saying the unsayable about race. Richard Pryor kicked down the door, but it was Rock who stamped a registered trademark on the N-word. He also had a rapper’s sensibility in the area of gender politics: his breakthrough set had much to say about — and I merely quote — dick and pussy.
And what about the movies? For children, Rock voiced a jive-talking zebra in the Madagascar mega-franchise, perhaps a quadrupedal hommage to Eddie Murphy’s donkey in Shrek. Alas Rock’s own pet projects have a tendency to misfire. Head of State posited the cockamamie notion of a black dude running for POTUS and winning. Weirdly, that did actually come to pass so next time round Rock dreamed up something even more outlandish. I Think I Love My Wife was a sex comedy adapted — and yes, you really are about to read this next bit — from un film d’Eric Rohmer. It was sort of Bill Cosby meets the nouvelle vague meets the remainder bin at Blockbuster. Imagine, if it had been a hit they’d all have been scavenging the Euro-canon for badass Hollywood remakes. We’d have had Jules et Jim et J-Lo, or A Short Film about Terminating. Maybe Closely Observed Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
But here comes Top Five, in which Rock is on safer ground. He plays Andre Allen, a former stand-up comedian who has voiced a jive-talking bear in a mega-franchise and now wants to make his own movies. OK, so the script sounds as though it was written on tracing paper, but cunningly Rock has also made some stuff up. Andre is a recovering alcoholic who was persuaded off the sauce by his fiancée, a Kardashianesque gargoyle whose every move is shot and reshot for her own reality TV show.
Andre has agreed to give an interview to someone called Chelsea Brown of the New York Times. This is not the actual New York Times that self-administers the cat-o’-nine-tails every time it gets a semi-colon out of place, but a pretend New York Times. It employs freelances who look like Rosario Dawson and ask Andre to describe the smell of the room after his hellzapoppin’ threesome with two working girls. The Times could probably sue: Rock has outrageously impugned its reputation for pre-war prudishness.
So where’s this all heading? It turns out Andre is feeling sorry for himself what with his limos and his bodyguard and his face up in Times Square advertising his (atrocious) new film about the Haitian revolution. ‘I don’t feel like doing funny movies anymore,’ he tells Chelsea. This is the moment you realise that, uh-oh, Rock is channelling the spirit of Stardust Memories, the movie in which Woody Allen laid a giant self-pitying turd on the doorstep of his adoring fans and begged them to let him be Bergman (or at least Fellini).
Anyway, Andre and Chelsea wander around New York for a day — that’s the plot — chewing over this über-posh problem of the wrong kind of superstardom, about which even the honorary president of the Chris Rock fan club may find it mathematically impossible to give even the teensiest fig.
There are funny performances around the fringes, especially when Andre hangs with a roomful of homeys in the hood. Rock’s acting is all bug eyes and crinkled cheeks. Dawson doesn’t have much to do but look classy in a half-shaved hairdo and feed him lines. Her big moment features a bi-curious boyfriend and a tampon doused in chilli sauce. There’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of such Rabelaisian humour, served up alongside Socratic little dialogues about race and sex, addiction and — do take matchsticks to prop open your eyelids — fame.
Somewhere in this narcissistic faux-fairytale is a romcom, bound and gagged and locked in the trunk. As a satirical attack on the inanities of the entertainment industry, Rock’s flamethrower is set to no higher than gentle singeing. The film was co-produced by Kanye West, whose own wedding was screened on the Kardashian channel. Why would he want to rough up reality TV for real? Instead Rock socks it to the fans.
Along the way you can tick off the celebrity cameos, the type that tend to placard a film as a vanity project. There’s marriage guidance in a strip joint from Seinfeld, Sandler and Whoopi. Super-famous rappers drop in called things like Doctor Drugs, DJBJ and MC Spanner. I may have written down some of these gents’ names wrong, but you get the picture. The title is a MacGuffin in which characters name their top five R&B acts. If you’d struggle to compile such a list, join another queue at the multiplex.