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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge