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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear