Top Five is a semi-autobiographical film that Chris Rock wrote and directed about an ex-stand up comedian who is spending the day going around New York promoting his first "serious" movie. (I put "serious" in quotes because one of the film's running jokes is that every clip of Uprize we see is nearly unwatchable.) As the movie progresses Rock's character will flirt with the New York Times journalist that's following him for the day, he will hang out with his old friends who still live in the hood, he will be in a car accident, he will have a fight with his fiancee, and he will get arrested. It's a day-in-the-life character study, a romantic comedy, and a show biz satire.
It's also a cypher. The various reviews that I've read have all come to the same general conclusion - the film is mostly charming, but also very uneven - but they've all arrived at that conclusion in different ways. When reporters talk about the movie they focus on what Rock gets right and what he gets wrong about the media, since his take is subtle in some ways and completely unbelievable in others. I've seen a few feminists reviews which focused on the film's romantic aspects, because it's sexual politics are kind of complicated. And of course every Chris Rock movie is going to get a different reception from a black audience than from a white audience; when Rock called into Marc Maron's WTF podcast to promote the movie he said that when he saw it with a black audience you could barely hear the dialogue over the laughter, but it doesn't sound like the white crowd was similarly enthusiastic.
I, too, am in the same boat, but (again) for different reasons. My personal angle is that I'm a little over movies made by Hollywood stars about what it's like to jump through Hollywood's hoops - that's a genre that feels a bit self indulgent even when it's done well, and it's generally not done well. At this point I've seen enough of these satires that I'm probably not going to laugh at jokes that basically boil down to the well trodden premise that "celebrities sure are narcissistic / dumb / downtrodden." Still, the show biz stuff is only one part of a bigger picture, and there are enough solid laughs and debatable opinions to make this well worth seeing - especially if you can see it with other people and actually have a debate about it.
Unfortunately, it would be a bit impractical to debate all the people who might read this review, so I thought I might switch gears for a minute. The title "Top Five" comes from the fact that Rock is always arguing with his friends about who the top five best rappers of all time are, and I thought I might drop my list on you. So in no particular order:
A. Jay Z - Music fans can generally be separated into two camps: singles people and album people. Most rappers are focusing on making hot singles, and their albums often suffer for that. One of the main reasons why I like Jay Z so much is that he is one of the few rappers who regularly puts out great singles and also puts out albums that are great from start to finish. (Well, start to finish with one or two asterisks - every track on the Black Album is awesome, minus Change Clothes, which I've always hated. But that's easy enough to forgive when it's also got something like My 1st Song, which is a stone cold classic.) I'm not going to argue with people who think he's gotten corny, or that he has some annoying verbal tics, but I can't think of anyone else who has been this consistently good for this long, and I think that's enough to make the list.
B. Big Boi - I know that most people don't think that Big Boi is the best rapper in Outkast, much less in rap as a whole, but I think he's just as imaginative as Andre and also a lot more consistent. More importantly, he's distinguished himself by releasing two solid solo records while Andre was off making shaving commercials. His first album had a ton of great singles on it and his most recent album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors is incredible from start to finish, uniting ballads, club bangers and deeply felt reflections about the death of his father. If you slept on it then you should really give it a try, because it does a really good job of balancing being open hearted against being light hearted.
C. Notorious B.I.G. - I'm actually very divided on Biggie overall, but I feel like I have to include him because I think "Things Done Changed" is the greatest rap song of all time. Biggie was basically the godfather of the entire crack-rap genre, but it's absurd that anyone ever tried to follow in his footsteps because he basically said it all in that one song. Things Done Changed has all of the usual drug game stuff - bragging about being tough, and money talk - but there's also a sense of vulnerability and honesty that was almost completely absent from the genre by the time that crossover acts like 50 Cent started showing up. Lines like "the streets is a short stop / either you're slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot" say it all concisely, incisively and powerfully. I just don't think that song can be beat.
D. Enter The Wu Tang: 36 Chambers - This is a little bit of a cheat since the Wu Tang Clan is technically nine people, but I'm not counting any of their solo work or even any of the Wu Tang's other albums. I'm just talking about this one album, where they were all coming from the same place, with the same intensity, for the same purpose - they were so deeply synced that they might as well have been a hydra. This album is so perfect I don't even want to start talking about if because if I do we'll be here all day. But seriously: it's fucking great.
E. Eminem - I actually don't like the majority of most of Eminem's songs, but he obsessively mentions how he thinks he should be on everyone's top five list and he also obsessively mentions how much he loves to murder people with chainsaws, so I'm putting him here just to be on the safe side.
(Actually I'm just kidding about the Eminem thing; he can be amazing for individual verses but he can rarely stay at full power for a whole song, much less an album. My fifth pick is actually MF Doom, who is not just insanely clever but who has some of the most cohesive and original hip-hop records out there.)
So, yeah, that's my top five. (Well, top 13, depending on how you count the Wu-Tang. But if I can't bundle them as one you can bet your ass I'm not going to waste a spot on U-God, the guy who barely features on the Wu Tang's best album because he was in prison while they were recording it. But I'm digressing.)
Anyway, Top Five ends up being a good name for this movie, not because it's going to ever be in anyone's list of top five favorite films, but because the whole point of making a top five list is to spark an argument. Yes, Top Five has it's weak spots, but it's a movie that you could probably debate with just about anyone, and that's a rare achievement. People that care about race issues, or gender issues, or questions about the media will all find food for thought - but even the people that don't care about those sort of big issue questions will be entertained. After all, who doesn't love arguing over an arbitrary top five list?