'Top Five' dragged down by hype

Hype is a dangerous thing.

It’s a double-edged sword, because any movie studio publicist will agree that buzz helps get people in the theater, but then high expectations from an audience can sink a mediocre film. That’s exactly what happened when I saw Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” which started a bidding war after its Toronto Film Festival premiere this September.

To make matters worse, all the interviews and TV appearances Rock’s been doing to promote the movie (especially the editorial he penned in The Hollywood Reporter) are far more cutting and incisive than anything in “Top Five.” Rock has always been a fearless social critic, so it’s a real disappointment that is his movie is so toothless.

Jumping off from what he knows best, Rock plays Andre Allen, a former stand-up comedian. After years of struggling on the circuit, Andre is now an A-list movie star, best known for a string of low-brow buddy-cop action movies in which he wears an actual bear suit and cracks wise (think Donkey from “Shrek,” only live-action and completely nonsensical).

His new movie — set during the bloody slave revolt of the Haitian revolution — is his attempt at “going serious,” only it looks equally ridiculous, and therein lies the problem. No sane person would ever think this is a good idea, and the film doesn’t have a straight-up satirical tone, like his admittedly spotty but occasionally hilarious “CB4.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNle_t7YL2c

No, “Top Five” tries to develop sincere characters and situations out of the flimsiest of clichés. Andre spends one long press day with New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who, like Andre, is a recovering alcoholic. She gets him to admit things he’s never told anyone, so the story continues to flash back to key scenes from Andre’s past.

Here, as a screenwriter, Rock falls in the trap of thinking that dirtier material equals adult material, which he proves isn’t the case. His “rock bottom” flashback in particular is more embarrassing for Rock the writer than it is for Andre the actor.

Rock is one of the premier stand-up comedians working today, so it’s no wonder that the funniest scenes in the film sound like stand-up bits turned into conversation. He has a couple of very funny rants while talking to Dawson. One scene has him actually delivering an “impromptu” stand-up set, and in another, he riffs with past and present “Saturday Night Live” cast members — and for once, the movie takes on a believable tone.

But then it’s right back to lazy plot devices, with a really dumb late-game revelation about Chelsea and the culmination of her already forced Cinderella obsession. (I’ll bet you can’t guess where that’s headed.)

As an actor, Rock is rarely convincing. Sure, he works as a stand-up comic, but I never once believed he was a recovering addict being tested to the hilt on one very stressful and eventful day. And if the jokes were faster and more furious, perhaps I wouldn’t have time so care so much about such unimportant stuff.

The best relationship in the film is between Andre and his bodyguard/manager (played by J.B. Smoove). There’s actually something cute — and subtle — about their mutual dependence on each other. That is, until the movie spells that out for you too.

Based on the things that work well in “Top Five,” perhaps Rock should take a page out of Christopher Guest’s book and write outlines rather than screenplays, meant to be filled in by talented actors who can improvise. From looking at the cameos in the movie (also a mixed bag), he certainly has enough friends.

When “Top Five” feels loose and lived-in, it starts clicking into place. But when it pushes its characters toward unearned saccharine, it feels as fake as the industry it’s supposed to be satirizing.

Pride

Thursday morning, one of the biggest surprise nominations at the Golden Globes was the announcement of “Pride,” up for the category of best picture — comedy or musical. Showing now at Liberty Hall, this U.K. indie crowd-pleaser is based on the true story of gay and lesbian activists in the mid-1980s who formed an unlikely alliance with Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers.

Despite a good showing at both the Cannes and Toronto Film Festival earlier this year, promotional efforts for the movie have been mild from distributor CBS Films. Actors Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, and Paddy Considine aren’t necessarily big-ticket names, but they are certainly well-known and respected among the industry, so maybe this nomination is what pushes “Pride” into the awards conversation during this crowded time of year.

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