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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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