Before the world premiere of “Top Five,” the new film written by, directed by and starring Chris Rock, there was a feel of real energy in the room at Toronto’s Princess of Wales theaters Saturday night. It was the expectant energy one might find at a music concert or, more appropriately, a high-profile stand-up comedy show. And that energy level remained throughout the night, as the film played to strong laughter and kept the audience engaged all the way through. Among the higher profile titles at this year’s fest, don’t be surprised by a distribution deal announcement very soon.
Punching up the energy before the show was the arrival of Adam Sandler. The actor entered the theater and took a seat with a small group in a reserved section at the center of the theater. The rows in front of him rose seemingly as one to turn around and take his picture. A veritable swarm made its way toward him as Jonathan Loughran and Allen Covert, two of those guys who frequently appear in Adam Sandler productions, politely but firmly tried to keep people away. When Sandler threw a wave back up to the balcony, cheers erupted.
Rock only briefly took the stage before the movie, striking a pose and exclaiming “Hey, get your pictures!” before saying simply, “Without further ado, I present to you, ‘Top Five.’”
In the film Rock plays Andre Allen, a stand-up comedian turned superstar comic actor. Famous for a series of films in which he played a talking bear, Allen now wants to be taken seriously. So on the day his new film about a Haitian slave uprising opens and just before a wedding to his reality-star fiancé (Gabrielle Union), Allen reluctantly agrees to be interviewed by a journalist from The New York Times named Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson.)
It turns into an eventful day, as Allen hustles around town promoting his movie and preparing for his wedding, including a side trip to the projects where he grew up to see his estranged father (Ben Vereen) and other old friends. (There was huge ovation from the audience Saturday night when actor Tracy Morgan, severely injured in a recent car accident, appeared onscreen.)
As Brown presses him on his struggles with fame and sobriety she reveals that she’s in recovery as well, and an upsetting run-in with her boyfriend puts her in a more emotional state. Other revelations and complications between them shift their dynamic from professional interview to something like an extended first date.
There was a big laugh for a moment when a placard with Sandler’s face is moved to a lesser seat at the wedding by Allen’s fiancé, what with the actor in the room. Sandler himself does appear in the movie too during a bachelor party scene, advising Rock’s character to have his bride-to-be sign a pre-nup while confessing he did not do the same. (He also suggests masturbation over cheating by way of marital advice.) Jerry Seinfeld and Whoopi Goldberg appear in the scene as well, with Seinfeld raining money on dancers in a strip club. Other notable cameos in the film include Charlie Rose, Taraji P. Henson and Gabourey Sidibe. DMX appears in a jail cell scene to sing Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.”
Journalists of course will be scoffing all the way through, as the pretense of the interview between Rock and Dawson seems to come and go as needed and the working-world dynamics of celebrity-centric journalism are disregarded. (Does she ever write that profile? That I would want to read.) The winning, playful chemistry between the two nearly papers over any gaps in logic or reality. They’re just great to watch together, simply walking and talking.
Rock kept things upbeat as he came out to introduce the cast after the screening. Dawson, J.B. Smoove, Cedric The Entertainer, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharaoh, Michael Che, Vereen and Karlie Redd all also took the stage, but it was Rock who did all the talking.
Rock noted that his own daughter is obsessed with Cinderella, which is where the handful of nods to that story came from, also noting that he was in part inspired by wanting to make a movie version of lives-of-comedians television shows “Louis,” “Seinfeld” and “Curb your Enthusiasm.”
He added, “I really wrote the movie to make out with Rosario. The whole thing is an elaborate ruse.”
Asked how strongly he related to the character he noted, “The character, it’s not exactly me,” while adding he has had situations similar to some of those in the film or that certain incidents are variations on things he has heard from other people.
As to whether he wants to go the serious route he said, “there’s a part of me. I’ve started writing a Nat Turner script. People laugh, but I might play Nat Turner,” adding it could be the next thing he directs.
Rock’s previous fiction feature as writer-director-star was 2007’s ‘I Think I Love My Wife,” an adaptation of Eric Rohmer’s “Chloe in the Afternoon.” (He also produced the 2009 documentary “Good Hair.”) But “Top Five” is not some ennui-laden examination of self, or revelatory peek behind the curtain of fame – it is a very fun movie that asks not to be taken too seriously. “Top Five” likely won’t make many critics’ top ten lists, but judging from the raucous response on Saturday night, audiences might rank it just fine.