This week, I'd like to deviate a bit from this column's standard format and offer my take on a somewhat mainstream movie that's just been released nationwide. The film is comedic writer-director-star Chris Rock's "Top Five," and besides being the best theatrical venture of his career to date (by leaps and bounds), it's a fairly ambitious and well-made vanity picture (and I use that last term in a positive way) that deserves to be seen in theaters.
While some critics are falling all over themselves to heap praise on "Top Five," it's nowhere near as biting or impressive as many would have readers believe. It would seem that some reviewers' zeal has at least as much to do with the poor caliber of "Top Five's" box-office competition than its own accomplishments. That said, this is most definitely a refreshingly provocative and surprisingly contemplative dramedy that - unlike the overwhelming majority of humorous films which reach our market in first release - offers viewers plenty to ponder long after the final credits have rolled.
Much like comedian and producer Larry David plays a slightly tweaked version of himself in his acclaimed, improvised HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Rock here plays Andre Allen, a world-famous stand-up comic turned lowbrow action movie star. Allen is in great part a transparent composite of Rock and his own mentor Eddie Murphy (whose "Beverly Hills Cop" franchise made him a gajillionaire, but also paved the way for his own occasional inability to reach back and embrace the gifts which made him a breakout sensation in the first place).
Andre's grappling with his fourth year of sobriety after years of steadily increasing alcohol abuse that left him a shell of his former self. However, the mere idea of trying to make people laugh while clear-headed and clean strikes fear into the comedian's heart, so he attempts an ill-conceived shift into serious dramatic roles that leaves his agent flummoxed and his fanbase cold.
"Top Five" uses that fertile, all-too-realistic scenario as the backdrop for an extended rumination on both the pressures of maintaining one's fame and fortune in the fickle world of celebrity, and on the harsh dichotomy between what is deemed acceptable behavior in 2014 for black entertainers (versus white ones).
The film plays out over the course of one very long day and night in New York City, from the swankiest of hotels and press junkets to the most common of housing projects and working-class neighborhoods. There's an awful lot of walking and talking - mostly between Rock and female lead Rosario Dawson ("Sin City"), who plays a snarky newspaper reporter attempting to cajole Andre into giving her just the kind of juicy, open-up-and-bleed interview he's desperate to avoid.
It's these lengthy, flowing sequences where the two protagonists bicker, flirt and feint throughout New York that make plain Rock's inspiration and intent with this project. Put simply: It's no coincidence his character's last name is Allen.
"Top Five" is likely the closest one will get to a "black Woody Allen movie" (so much so that tagline could have served as the film's elevator pitch) - although there's at least as much "Stardust Memories" in the mix as "Annie Hall," and maybe a bit more. Picture Richard Pryor playing the role of "Stardust's" Sandy Bates, and you'll come close to the vibe of this intriguing, heartfelt pastiche.
Sadly, Rock just does not have the gravitas to pull off the role as best he should. Much like Jerry Seinfeld (who, along with comics Adam Sandler, Cedric the Entertainer, Brian Regan and Bruce Bruce, all appear in cameo roles), who for the first several seasons of "Seinfeld" simply could not wipe the smug satisfaction of having his own TV sitcom off his face, thus undercutting much of that show's best and driest moments, so too Rock seems incapable of fully committing to drama. It's rare in "Top Five" when one can't clearly make out the thinnest of knowing smiles on his lips, even in scenes of extreme pathos.
Still, to write, direct and star in an independent film that's in large part based on your own life is an almost Herculean task, and one that begs forgiveness for Rock's actorly shortcomings, which, it should be noted, are only minor annoyances. To say that none other than him could (or should) have played this role is arguably a truism, and the insight, candor and wit shown in this production all bode well for his future efforts in this vein. "Top Five" will screen through at least Dec. 23 at Frank Theatres Victory Square 9 and the Carmike 10 on Stephenson Avenue. Check Fandango for showtimes and prices.
And finally, Dec. 21 at The Sentient Bean Coffeehouse, the Psychotronic Film Society hosts a special birthday tribute to the legendary television and film writer, producer, director and narrator, Rod Serling.
Though he died in 1975 at the untimely age of just 50 years old (he'd turn 90 this month), Serling's resume begins in the early days of live television dramas and reads like a list of high-water marks: In 1956 he wrote "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (which nabbed him the Peabody Award for Personal Recognition in Writing and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best One-Hour Drama), in 1959 he created the famed "Twilight Zone" TV series (which earned him Emmy, Hugo and Golden Globe awards) and he co-wrote the original 1968 "Planet of the Apes" film.
He also created, co-wrote and hosted the 1970s cult classic late-night horror anthology series "Night Gallery," as well as did the voice-over narration for the old "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" TV specials of the '60s and '70s.
In his honor, the PFS will screen the critically adored 1955 big-business drama "Patterns," starring Van Heflin ("Shane," "3:10 to Yuma," "Airport"), which Serling wrote long before his "Twilight Zone" fame. Originally broadcast as a live network teleplay in 1954, its popularity resulted in this theatrical remake the following year. A stunning piece of dramatic writing that's as well-acted as any film of its time, this was the script that jump-started Serling's career and made him a household name.
The New York Times called it "a creative triumph," and the Saturday Review's critic said, "I do not recall being so engaged by a drama, nor so stimulated to challenge (its) haunting conclusions."
Even today, 60 years after it was first written, Serling's damning portrayal of corporate culture's greed and cruelty is eerily contemporary and completely relevant. Anyone with even a passing interest in such subject matter - or in Serling's pre-"Twilight Zone" work - should appreciate the chance to see this rare gem on the big screen. Showtime is 8 p.m., with $7 admission.
Until next week, see you at the movies, and don't forget to turn off that cell phone.
Jim Reed directs Psychotronic Film Society of Savannah. Read more at www.filmsavannah.com.