On a Hollywood film, there’s only one job that belongs uniquely to the director: coaching the actors. Hair, make-up, costumes, set design, special effects, editing—pretty much every other responsibility is delegated to one degree or another. Even choosing camera angles and the look of a film can fall disproportionately on a good cinematographer’s shoulders (which is how they earn their reputations as the hardest working person on set). So when I saw you in the credits for Top Five, it confirmed what I had suspected: Chris Rock can’t direct.
Normally, when you’ve been hired, it’s to train actors for a very specific – and often technically difficult – level of specificity, like hitting the Kennedy brother’s broken Boston cadence (like you did in Thirteen Days), achieving a believable stutter (like you did in The Green Mile), or helping someone master a foreign accent or speak a second language (like you did with Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4).
In fact, it's possible that Lethal Weapon 4 is where you met Rock. And maybe he kept you in mind for Top Five. Or maybe he just learned from his first two films – Head of State in 2003 and I Think I Love My Wife in 2007, that he needed all the help he could get. I certainly won’t fault him,or anyone, for stacking the deck in their favour. But in this case, it just makes the failure all the more inexcusable.
Let’s start with the acting. Chris Rock may or may not have actually suffered from alcoholism in his life, but, if so, he sure doesn’t know how to translate that into a believable performance. His deficiencies as a dramatic actor would usually have no bearing on his comedic delivery, but Top Five isn’t just a straight-up comedy. It meanders with the overreaching ambition of Richard Linklater’s Before series, yet tries to anchor its meandering with a conventional Hollywood plot—minus any of the necessary turns or emotional beats that might qualify the film as a proper drama (or even a dramedy). Much of this failure has to do with Rock’s own high-pitched, always in-on-the-joke delivery, which makes him more than ever feel like the Black Seinfeld (who, speaking of which, makes a very amusing out-of-character cameo).
Maybe that’s on you. I can’t imagine who else you were hired to help. Rosario Dawson is always great, and gives her performance more heart than the script does. Most of the other actors are simply playing variations of themselves, or characters we’re familiar with them playing. That, at least, allows for enjoyable bits scattered throughout the film.
But there are still too many scenes that drag on a little too long, a story structure that complicates instead of clarifies, and a title that’s as throw-away as many of the scenes. Top Five can’t help but disappoint.
Maybe next time, coach.