Never bitter: Chris Rock with Rosario Dawson.
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Chris Rock's film Top Five shows a comic longing to ditch the jokes

Top Five is a cleverly profane version of Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, but sometimes it veers into self-sabotage.

Top Five (15)
dir: Chris Rock

Chris Rock is an anomaly: a movie star who has never had a hit movie of his own. On the rare occasions when he has starred in a fully fledged success, it has been either someone else’s (Adam Sandler’s unfathomably popular Grown Ups comedies) or one in which he is hidden from view (the animated Madagascar films).

Rock made his millions as one of the world’s snappiest stand-ups. His adorably lopsided mouth tells it straight, usually about racial inequality or the gender divide, and his high, incredulous voice strips out threat while leaving room for outrage. He is closer to Richard Pryor than to his old mentor Eddie Murphy, whose routines could be cruel, even vindictive. With Rock, there is no hard place. He has a tiny, pill-shaped head but it’s not a bitter pill.

In Top Five, which he also wrote and directed, he is Andre Allen, an alcoholic stand-up whose Hammy the Bear films have kept him hidden from view. Sound familiar? As part of a campaign to be taken seriously, Andre has made a slavery drama that he hopes will put paid to strangers making bear noises at him in the street. Top Five is exactly the sort of picture that a man might make when he hits 50, as Rock has. It’s a profane version of another story about a comic talent longing to ditch the jokes: Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. Given his name, Allen (who was 45 when he made that work) could even be Andre’s brother from another mother. “We enjoy your films,” a group of visiting extraterrestrials told him in the movie. “Particularly the early, funny ones.”

Top Five is hardly in the same class as Stardust Memories but it is still manifestly cinema, rather than filmed comedy, and the gags are often visually sophisticated – such as the nifty riposte to Andre’s complaints about the difficulties experienced by black men hailing cabs. It’s pleasing enough that Rock would stage a boisterously funny sex scene, fit to stand, or rather lie, alongside the one in The Tall Guy in which Jeff Goldblum and Emma Thompson demolish an entire flat. But when the feathers from a pillow fight start flying in the bedroom, don’t think the tribute to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933) is accidental: Rock knows his French onions. (He previously directed a remake of Éric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon.) And if Adam Sandler had made Top Five, what are the chances he would have hired as his cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, who shot Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Nymphomaniac? Slim, I think.

Claro’s work here has a roaming, ravenous quality. The film is always on the go – it hits the ground running with a verbal ping-pong match between Andre and Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), the New York Times reporter whose day-long interview with him provides the catalyst for his bout of self-examination. But it also has a troubled centre. Rock asks what the psychological cost might be for someone who looks to strangers for love, to bodyguards and agents for comfort and to the box office for validation.

There are enough overlaps between life and art for Top Five to belong to that mini-genre in which comics play versions of themselves: Larry David (in Curb Your Enthusiasm), Louis CK (Louie), Matt LeBlanc (Episodes). Though Rock has expressed no urge to leave comedy, he does have a serious side; he was electrifying as a jittery young junkie in New Jack City. Andre even hangs out with the same celebrities as Rock. He takes marital advice from Adam Sandler and whoops it up with Jerry Seinfeld, who parodies his prissy image by hurling money at strippers like a debauched Roman emperor.

Despite its pensive moments and Andre’s AA mantra about “rigorous honesty”, the film isn’t always so rigorous with itself. Misogyny and homophobia slip through the net and cannot be neutralised, not even by Rock’s indefatigable sweetness. It is one thing to use a phrase such as “ho sleep” to describe the fitful nap a man has when he thinks there’s a chance a woman might drop by and quite another to leave it unchallenged by Chelsea, who in most instances calls Andre out on injudicious comments. A protracted episode in which a secretly gay man has a chilli-soaked tampon inserted into his anus is much harder to take – as, indeed, it would be in life. Come the end of the year, it is only hostile, self-sabotaging moments like these that will prevent Top Five from being in anyone’s top five.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism