Monday, December 7, 2015

Top Five

(Chris Rock, USA, 2014)
Chris Rock's film about celebrity and culture (and celebrity culture) feels like a grab-bag, but it makes the most of its looseness. At it's best, the film vibrates with energy and comedic wit, and Rock's observations on a range of subjects, from sexual politics to celebrity to race to commerce, are typically smart and often hilarious.  At its worst, it relies on warmed-over tropes of the Rom-Com, setting up the conditions for a romance with all the subtlety of teenagers at a High School social.  The strongest moments come with the instant authenticity of actions and reactions captured in real time; sudden bursts of verit√©-style improvisation, as Rock and his talented co-performers riff on all manner of subjects.  The film's title derives from a listing of one's favorite five hip hop artists, an activity that becomes a kind of social ritual, an exchange of ideas that serves as a basis for an ad-hoc bull session, argument as communion.  Rock's view, which is not entirely novel, is that success in the entertainment world - particularly in one as celebrity-worshipping as our own - means a certain failure of authenticity.  The bigger one gets, the harder it is to "keep it real" - a locution originating in the African American community that has come, like so many others, to prominence in the larger cultural lexicon.  Rock's innovation is to tie this broader failure to a more local one; for black celebrities, authenticity is a doubly important.  They don't suffer from only from the erosion of their personal integrity brought on by fame, but also from a sense that they are also being disloyal to their community - their sense of belonging to a group that is, for all of the social progress of the past fifty years, still on the margins in certain crucial ways. 

The dual-cultural dilemma is Rock's most compelling idea, but it doesn't fully animate the movie.  Much of the narrative is devoted to the obviously-fated romance of his character, a successful comedian who has become a movie star, and Rosario Dawson's character, a hustling journalist who also happens to be in recovery, like Rock's Andre Allen.  While Rock deserves credit for navigating these familiar tropes with verve and wit, they are the weakest aspects of the film.  It's clear that Rock gets the most energy for his comedy (and his pathos, which is real and which isn't fully explored by the film) from the high-wire energy of stand-up.  And there are some delightful scenes, including one of an actual stand-up routine, that fix and transmit this energy, charged with creative risk and self-revealing pain.  But they are outweighed by the more conventional super-structure of the film, which seeks to smooth over the rough edges that Rock's comedic imagination reveals in everyday life.  I'm curious to see what Rock does next, and I hope he follows his instincts further, and more daringly, into his development as a filmmaker. 

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