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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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge