Chris Rock is just being his biting, brazen self in ‘Top Five’
Chris Rock’s manner offstage is different than it is onstage. He doesn’t pace back and forth like a tiger in a cage. His voice doesn’t go up quite as high when he’s making a point. He doesn’t bristle with live-wire energy. But one thing is the same: He is unafraid to be brutally candid.
Take the way he tells the story behind his new comedy, “Top Five.”
In summer 2012, the stand-up comic turned actor and filmmaker was in Massachusetts working on “Grown Ups 2,” the sequel to the commercially successful but critically panned 2010 buddy comedy. He didn’t have a whole lot to do in the movie — he was third or fourth on the call sheet behind Adam Sandler and Kevin James — which meant he had endless hours of down time.
“On a big movie, there are a lot of days off,” Rock, 49, remembered this month. “I’m going, ‘What am I doing here?’”
So he decided to write a screenplay. “You don’t know where ‘Grown Ups 2' is going to fall, quality-wise, but you know it will make money, which will get me some goodwill,” he said. “So let me write a movie.”
Rock had collaborated on scripts before and directed a couple of movies: 2003’s “Head of State,” in which he played an unlikely presidential candidate, and 2007’s romantic comedy “I Think I Love My Wife.” But nothing he’d done on the big screen had ever approached the heights of artistic daring or popular appeal he’d reached as a stand-up comic. And he knew it.
“I just had this nagging feeling like, ‘I haven’t done a really good movie yet,’” Rock said. “I’d written and directed movies, and they were OK. They have their moments. But none of them felt like me from beginning to end. They felt like a sanitized version, honestly.”
Rock can take that off his list of worries. “Top Five,” which he wrote and directed, is anything but sanitized.
Bitingly satirical, brazenly profane and sometimes raunchy, the R-rated comedy opening Dec. 12 stars Rock as a stand-up turned movie star named Andre Allen who is undergoing a midlife career crisis. Struggling to reinvent himself as a serious actor, tugged between his glamorous Hollywood life and his inner-city roots, Andre pours his heart out — in more ways than one — to a journalist (Rosario Dawson) over the course of one tumultuous and at times calamitous day.
Since its well-received premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Top Five” has been hailed as a breakthrough for Rock as a writer, director and leading man, the most unadulterated cinematic expression yet of the irreverent, boundary-pushing brand of comedy he’s known for. Indeed, that was Rock’s goal from the start: to make a film that from beginning to end felt like him.
“Chris knew if he was going to make another movie, he had to do something that was more personal,” said Scott Rudin, who produced “Top Five” and is known for shepherding Oscar fare such as “The Social Network” and “Captain Phillips” to the screen. “The whole idea was, how do you turn the giant appeal of his stand-up into a full movie? What would the Chris Rock opus be?”
On a recent afternoon, the thin, wiry Rock, who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two daughters, had just flown in to L.A. to collect the best comedy film trophy at the Hollywood Film Awards. Granted, the Hollywood Film Awards may not be the most prestigious honors in filmdom (“All my life I’ve dreamt of getting one of these,” Rock cracked sarcastically on receiving the prize). But “Top Five” finding its way into this awards season at all has come as a great surprise to him.
“Who thinks of a comedy getting accolades?” Rock said. “You just hope it kind of works. I never had any thoughts of grandeur.” He referenced one of the film’s most outrageous sequences, in which Andre debases himself during a night of debauchery involving prostitutes and drugs, a sequence that culminates in a sexual sight gag far too filthy to be described here. “You don’t make this stuff thinking you’re going to be a hit at the Toronto Film Festival,” he said dryly.
Simply making a successful transition from stand-up comedy to acting is difficult enough; for every Sandler or Jim Carrey, there are an untold number of comics whose Hollywood aspirations never made it past a sitcom pilot or a development deal. The list of comedians who’ve gone on to significant filmmaking careers — a group that includes Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, Judd Apatow and one of Rock’s biggest influences, Woody Allen — is even shorter.
Ironically, by making a comedy satirizing the stereotypical comedian’s urge to be taken seriously, Rock now finds himself being taken more seriously than he ever has before. The key, he said, is that, with “Top Five,” he didn’t take himself seriously. He simply set out to make a funny movie.
“The thing is, just be funny and they’ll take you seriously at some point,” he said. “Nothing tops making people laugh. I always say, you can have sex with someone or you can make them laugh — those are, like, the biggest things you can do for people. And by the way, people stop talking to people they have sex with — but no one stops talking to people who make them laugh, ever!”
Rock, who grew up in a working-class section of Brooklyn, proved his ability to make people laugh from an early age, breaking out in the 1990s as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” and earning renown as an acerbic stand-up comfortable touching the third rail of race in America. On the big screen, Rock has appeared in dozens of movies, usually in supporting roles (among other things, he provides the voice of the zebra character in the “Madagascar” films). But as with other button-pushing black comedians, like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, Hollywood hasn’t always known how best to harness his particular talents.
For years, Rock found himself frequently being offered what he collectively calls “fake ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ movies. ‘You’re a fish out of water. You’re a cop in Ireland.’” He paused, turning over the topic in his head like the kernel of a stand-up riff. “I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m in CAA right now, and I’m a fish out of water!’ I walk through the lobby of the Four Seasons and I’m a fish out of water! I don’t have to play the black NASCAR driver in a movie to be a fish out of water.”
Soon after starting on the script for “Top Five,” Rock talked about it with his longtime friend Louis CK, who rebooted his own comedy career with great success in his 40s. “I told Louis I had a germ of an idea and he said, ‘You’ve got to write this by yourself,’” Rock said. “He was like, ‘Your stand-up is there, but you’ve been doing these movies by committee. You’ve got to feel the pain. You’ve got to dig deep.’”
Inspired by Allen’s 1980 movie “Stardust Memories,” Rock decided to mine his own experiences and observations about Hollywood for material. “Andre is an amalgamation of what a brash black comedian is,” he said. “He’s a little me, but he’s also a little Jamie Foxx, a little Eddie Murphy, a little Chris Tucker, a little Martin Lawrence.”
With “Top Five,” Rock was particularly interested in exploring the phenomenon of black fame. “For black entertainers, there’s a responsibility that comes with fame that white entertainers don’t have,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is telling Justin Timberlake, ‘Don’t forget where you came from.’ No one is telling Bradley Cooper to ‘keep it real.’” He laughed. “I have no clue where Bradley Cooper is even from. I don’t know where Tom Cruise or Ryan Gosling is from. I have no clue! But you know where every black entertainer is from because it’s important — because they got out of some place.”
Comedian Cedric the Entertainer, who costars in “Top Five” as a sleazy concert promoter, credits Rock with smartly capturing the particular burdens black entertainers often carry.
“A lot of African American comedians have these stories: How you dealt with one or the other parent being out of the household, how your relatives come back and everybody wants money, how you’re supposed to be the voice for the community and take care of the ‘hood. Chris had all that in the script, and I think those themes and that subtext are what make the movie whole as opposed to just extremely funny.”
Paramount Pictures, which acquired the independently produced “Top Five” for $12.5 million after its Toronto debut after a fierce bidding war, has high hopes that the film can cross over to wide audience, and Rock is aware that it is a potential career game-changer. But he is being careful not to get ahead of himself.
“I’ve been in too many movies that haven’t worked to jump the gun on this one,” he said. “The movie has to come out and make money.” He winced. “There’s nothing worse than that Friday when your movie bombs. You go to the theater and people are on line for the Tyler Perry movie and your theater is empty. It’s brutal, dude. Brutal.”
Still, buoyed by the enthusiastic reactions to the movie, Rock is already looking to other provocative projects. He has started work on a comedy script about “a black guy who is against Obama in the midst of Obama-dom” and has a dream of making a biopic about the slave-rebellion leader Nat Turner, though he acknowledges that one may be a hard sell. “If somebody lets me make it, I’ll make it,” he said, “but that ain’t happening.”
Rock hasn’t done a stand-up special in six years, but he still gets out to clubs when he can in between other projects to work on material. “I love doing stand-up, and I think that’s the best way to see me,” he said. “But it’s just about trying to figure out a schedule. I’ve got kids, man, and they’re only young once. The minute they don’t want to see me, I’ll be at a theater near you.”
As he approaches his 50th birthday, Rock is well aware that he’s at an age where many comics start to lose their edge and veer toward safer, blander fare. “Most comedians — no names — are doing kids’ movies by 50,” he said. “You lose your fastball. You start nipping around the corners. ‘Maybe I can get them to swing at this junk.’”
He shrugged. “I’m not worried about it. The key is low overhead. Don’t buy too many houses. Don’t have a bunch of kids out of wedlock. If you have a manageable monthly nut, you can say no to anything.”
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