Top Five (2015) + Why Chris Rock is a damn good writer

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Screenwriter/Director: Chris Rock

Before Chris Rock’s bodacious documentary Good Hair and hit-show Everybody Hates Chris, this comedian wasn’t considered a storytelling champ in cinema or TV. But now, oh now, we should reckon Chris Rock has entered a refined groove of comedic screenwriting genius in all the right places.

Top Five is a surprising delight. If you think this movie is an account of Chris Rock’s comedy career, you’d be right. But its no documentary. Chris proves to be a real screenwriter. And this story is an account of what it means to struggle with fame, artistry and keeping it real… with yourself and the world.

Why Chris Rock is so damn lovable

Back in the 90s, Chris Rock was everything. But why do we still love him? Sure, he’s awfully pretty. Honest but, not judgmental. Humble yet, still holds high expectations for his fellow human beings. And he’s funny, very funny. But mostly, we love that he’s not afraid to look in the mirror, poke fun and call out whether he’s standing in a crooked room or not.

Speaking of crooked rooms…

“Isn’t Reality TV real?”

Top Five shamelessly spotlights the damning affects of Reality TV and America’s obsession with celebrity. The movie uses the pending nuptials of comedian André Allen and his talentless, celeb-wannabe fiancé to illustrate the trends and ludicrous nature of fame and celebrity obsession.

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Our priorities are the wrong side up. Reality TV culture has really f*cked with human behavior. I don’t think anybody admits that.

Top Five reflects a new truth. That our lives don’t matter if there’s no footage or nobody sees it. Allen’s fiancé pouts that “If doesn’t happen on camera, it doesn’t exist!” Pathetic, but she spits some truth. Our culture thrives off the media in some unprecedented ways.

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“Which part of you am I dating?”

Chris stirs up concern over newer generations being a much more complicated bunch that preceding groups. In an era of celebrated infidelity, wider dating pools, reversed gender role expectations, increased sexual risks and just the overall decline of monogamy and marriage… well, finding dating & romance success is like hunting for grizzly bears: scary, and hard. Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), the lead supporting character, finds herself in some bizarre dating experiences and adds to the social narratives of romance not quite being what it was.

 Why there’s nobody else like him

Chris Rock’s political satire has always had edge. Imperfect, yeah, but like any great comedian, he has heart. To study human behavior to such depths (and even offer counter measures), well, that takes love and dedication. And therein lies Chris screenwriting edge. His subtle, but blatant sociopolitical undertones add so much rich subtext to his stories.

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Aren’t comedians undercover social activists?

After watching Top Five, the lack of other films like it feel scarce. Why does it take a comedian screenwriter to get some on-screen food-for-thought that used to be standard? Film today represents less socially-inspired art, and more surrealism; limited to comic book universes and academy award tastebuds. Where’s art reflecting issues happening in our world today?

Why we need more of it… and him

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Chris Rock offers something nearly evaporated from our culture: self-reflection. But, the demand for it isn’t there.

Top Five brilliantly pokes at deep philosophical questions about who we are and our personal artistic developments. He asks us what the cost of self-preservation is.

André Allen, a comedian who doesn’t want to be funny anymore, wants to offer his audience another side of himself. But the world doesn’t want it. It demands his funny; making it impossible for him to be taken seriously.

How do we break away from society’s limitations? Can artists evolve? Are we allowed?

A most ideal case study may be the recent evolution of Beyoncé. (Bare with me.)

This was an artist on the edge of fading away; not due to lack of talent but an absence of creativity & growth. She became the ultimate Pop machine – similar to the likes of an early Madonna and Britney Spears – not yet arriving to her true self. If she didn’t sit down, design and push her own evolution, her career may not have prospered a great deal more. Her middle-of-the-night album drop was the best decision she could’ve ever made. It took guts, patience, and risk. Nobody was going to sign off on that album if she didn’t demand so. Her fans might’ve been on board but, who’s to say? The point is she did what she had to do to survive as an artist.

Our culture doesn’t always reward risk-taking. Social media backlash is just one (of many) deterrents swaying artists from their true artistic pursuits. But just like Beyoncé, Prince, Steve Jobs and even our President; we evolve by doing what we need to do.

What Top Five teaches about the Protagonist

Chris Rock’s screenwriting brilliance is in how well the crisis of his protagonist is constructed. André was ripe for change and was led right into the heat of making critical life decisions.

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What to mimic in your own character development

When writing a protagonist in crisis, there’s two layers of conflict to address. André Allen got the chance to explore new options in life. But what would’ve otherwise been easy decision-making was instead complicated by an identity crisis.

The first conflict layer to address is your character’s internal battle with their identity, or purpose. And the resistance to change (or not) change it. The next layer is the character’s friction with external factors like career and relationship success. Whatever factors your character is faced with, there just has to be a consistent clash of wants and needs. When concocting your story’s plot, the odds need not favor your protagonist.

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Audiences enjoy seeing a protagonist struggle with the consequences of good and bad decision-making and even how they align up with our own morals. Chris Rock nailed this. There was a clash when Allen thought he was okay with settling for a loveless marriage only to realize he wanted quality romance. There’s another clash when his comedy career expires and he wants to take on more dramatic roles but, his fans won’t let him. And there’s half a dozen more clashes after that. Witnessing clashes can help audiences visually grasp the character’s growth and development and enrich the story.

Top Five is a great case study for intertwining social context with a protagonist in crisis, along achieving a healthy balance of comedy & drama. It’s another rare gem from Chris Rock. Peep game!

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