TOP FIVE. Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, J.B. Smoove, Gabrielle Union. Directed by Chris Rock. 102 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong sex scenes, nudity and coarse language).
The film opens with a walking dialogue scene between Andre Allen (Chris Rock) and Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), strolling together through New York City discussing the political and racial landscape in modern day America. It is immediately very funny, timely, moving and real, and it’s a credit to writer/director Rock that this sensibility is maintained throughout.
We jump back to the beginning of the day. Andre is a former star comedian turned comedic actor, who has been moving away from comedy films since diagnosing his own alcoholism and going clean four years earlier. With the launch of his new movie ‘Uprize’ – about the uprising of Haitian slaves two centuries ago, hilariously pegged as ‘this year’s “Django”’ – he agrees to an interview for the New York Times with their reporter Chelsea. Also on his mind are his upcoming nuptials to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), who is constantly followed by a swarm of cameras, personal assistants and the producers of her show. Andre and Chelsea travel around New York for the day, she trying to conduct a hard-hitting, ‘rigorously honest’ interview, he trying to hold his life together as events keep forcing him to question everything.
The film has received many comparisons to Woody Allen from American critics, and they are justified – though the narrative is rarely ground-breaking, the comedy is frequently hilarious and bittersweet, the romance is naturally paced and played, plus the cast assembled reads like a who’s who of contemporary comedy, particular in its African-American stars. Though many are cameos, those with fictional roles all hit their mark. Andre Allen is a natural extension for Rock, much like Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer in ‘Annie Hall’ – his confidence is palpable, but the underlying vulnerability of a man with something to prove never drops too far from the surface. Rosario Dawson is deeply impressive as Chelsea, conveying the strength she uses to overcome her own insecurities though never simplifying her character to be just a sassy foil for Andre. Both leads’ characters are well-written, with well measured character reveals which keep their evolving friendship fascinating to watch. Even Gabrielle Union convinces in her short but heartbreaking mini-meltdown.
The satire of show business is well-pitched too, hitting the notion of comedy actors who try to turn serious, the rise of reality stars famous for being famous, as well as the state of black culture in contemporary America. Scenes where the pair visit Andre’s family in a modest apartment block are among the best in the film, with a rich, vital sense of life and familial love. Of course, the comedy earns its MA15+ rating with a liberal application of bad language and some explicit scenes. But unlike its peers, it doesn’t use them in a manner which comes across as obligatory or thrown in for shock value – they’re more often used as statements on infidelity or addiction or celebrity.
I caught the film in a nearly empty cinema. It’s a shame that more people didn’t turn out to see what may go down as the beginning of Rock’s revelation of what he’s truly capable of in film. But it is the kind of film which brought my solitary companion and me to clap at the end. Just the two of us.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out March 12.