Thursday, December 18, 2014

Top Five

Top Five
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica, Queens NY

Last year, when I wrote about Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, I said that I missed his comedic work. There's no doubt that he has made himself over into a sensational dramatic actor, with two Oscars to back him up in this regard, and he hasn't completely given up on comedy, but the fact remains that he made a conscious decision to, if not abandon comedy, then at least to step back from it for awhile.

He's far from the first comedic actor to do so. Many funny men and women approach a point in their careers when they get the itch to test out their dramatic chops. Last year, seven minutes of footage from a documentary about Jerry Lewis' Holocaust drama The Day the Clown Cried surfaced. The comedic legend made the film over forty years ago, but it was never released, and he has been extraordinarily tight-lipped about it, for the most part, ever since. In this interview from 2009, though, while he's candid on some things about the film, he's evasive on others, and it's hard to tell for certain how he really feels about the movie.

Most of the time, I'm willing to give a comedian the benefit of the doubt whenever they go serious: Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, Steve Martin in The Spanish Prisoner, Mike Myers in 54, Jim Carrey in The Majestic, to pick a few examples. I think actors should be willing to try new things once in awhile if they feel they have it within them to expand their boundaries...

... but they run the risk of alienating their audience if they do - and this is the conflict at the heart of the movie Top Five. It's funny that this should come out at around the same time as Birdman, another movie with similar themes. Both protagonists are Hollywood actors known for a specific character that has made them rich and famous, but has also pigeonholed them to a large extent. Both protagonists take a risk by starring in wildly different vehicles meant to redefine them as actors, and both of them suffer from self-doubt. Both are also comedies, but their approaches are as different as night and day.

For a brief time, back when I was still making comics, I was worried about whether or not I'd be able to escape the shadow of a graphic novella I made which got me the best reviews I'd ever had. It was tied to some deeply personal experiences I'd had which eventually came back to haunt me as a result of this book, and while I was proud of what I'd made, I was also frustrated with it as well, and I had to be talked out of taking it out of print (though that ended up happening anyway). I made subsequent stuff, but nothing that reached that book's heights, which were not even that high to begin with.

I suspect being perceived as a one-hit wonder is a very real fear for many creative people. Maybe that's one reason why serialization has become so popular in narrative fiction across multiple media. While I've been working on my novel, I've been doing a lot of reading about the craft of writing novels, and a lot of sources emphasize building a brand that one can be identified with in the marketplace. I have no idea whether or not I even have one novel in me, much less a series of novels, and naturally, I have no guarantees that this one novel will even be any kind of success. I recently talked to Jacqueline about this, and she assured me that there's no shame in making only a single novel if it's from the heart. It's something I'm trying to keep in mind as I write.

Back to the movie, though: I've always had great respect for Chris Rock, going back to my days in video retail when I'd occasionally put on one of his stand-up videos late at night, before closing, and became familiar with his routine. I remember watching early movies of his like CB4 and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka on video as well, and of course, he was one of the highlights of the Kevin Smith films Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

In the interviews he's done to promote Top Five, he's talked about, among many other things, the nature of comedy, and I think part of what makes this movie, which he wrote, produced and directed, notable, is that on a meta-textual level, this is his bid for "serious" legitimacy, as a director as well as an actor, but he does it without alienating his audience or sacrificing the things that make him unique and funny. 

This movie doesn't even feel like one of those comedy-drama hybrids that many comedic actors sometimes make (Good Morning Vietnam, Man on the Moon, Funny People, etc.). You know what I mean? A movie that's ostensibly a drama, but allows the comedian a context in which they can still be funny. 

Top Five isn't like that at all. People have been comparing it to the work of Woody Allen, but I think a better comparison might be to Steve Martin's sublime LA Story. On the surface, it feels like it could've come from the same guy who did The Jerk and All of Me and Three Amigos, but there's definitely a lot more going on here. And like Top Five, there's a love story at its heart. If you weren't a Chris Rock fan before, I think his movie will make you one.

And for the record, my top five rappers list (that's what the title refers to) is strictly old school: Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J and the Fat Boys. Basically, anybody who was in Krush Groove.


  1. I wrote a review of Top Five, which'll be posted an a site soon, that also points out all the (unintentional) similarities between the film and Birdman; I think the plot does take lots from Sullivan's Travels, Stardust Memories and several Frank Capra films. I thought Top Five was contradictory, though, an uneasy mashing of over the top sex comedy for his old fans and classic film romance for what you might call the Before Sunrise crowd. Or maybe it just didn't work for me. It could have been sweeter, less crass.

    1. I dunno, the romantic stuff didn't feel too out of place to me. Maybe it was the approach he took - the walking and talking, Before Sunrise format - that seemed particularly unique and unusual more than anything else. I agree that it could've been sweeter.

  2. My top five: Grandmaster Flash, Beastie Boys, Ghostface Killah, MF Doom, Big Boi.

  3. Grandmaster Flash! I knew I forgot somebody...


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