Smile Though Your Heart Is Aching
— In Top Five, Chris Rock reconstructs Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), continuing the woeful story of a male stand-up comedian trying to find meaningful human contact with his female love interest. Rock’s film is an ever more grandiose achievement; it moves beyond Allen, progressing to understand Manhattan as a multi-racial city full of diversity. The film opens with a two-shot of the comedian and a journalist, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) walking down a crowded city street. The shot mimics the bravura long take, long shot opening of Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) walks toward the camera in two-shot with his comedy writing partner, Rob (Tony Roberts). Alvy’s talk with Rob introduces us to his many comic neuroses.
In Top Five, Rock the director allows Rock the actor to tutor us to pay attention to these very intertextual connections. In that first conversation, and subsequently in the film, Chelsea insists, “sometimes a movie is just a movie,” to which Andre Allen, Rock’s character replies, “it’s never just a movie.” In a later scene, Andre insists that “every Planet of the Apes movie is about race,” that the Charlton Heston vehicle is about “the white man’s fear of a black planet.” When Chelsea doesn’t believe him, he asks her what happened the day after The Planet of the Apes was released in April 1968. Her answer is correct, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. For his part, Alvy is also a critical interpreter of secret discourse. As he talks to Rob, Alvy finds anti-Semitism at every turn. He insists to Rob that when a waiter asked them, “did you?,” he blurred the phrase into an ethnic slur, “did Jew?”
Top Five owes its entire structure to Annie Hall. Alvy, a former stand-up comedian turned comedy writer reflects through voice-overs and flashbacks on his prior marriages and his current relationship with Annie (Diane Keaton), a would-be singer. In Top Five, Andre is a stand-up comedian turned movie star, having appeared in a series of wretched Hollywood cop comedies, the Hammy the Bear series. As Andre walks down the streets of Manhattan, people scream “Hammy” at him, identifying him not with his new serious role as a political revolutionary in Haiti, but instead as a crime-fighter in a furry suit.
Similarly, Alvy waits for Annie outside a movie theater. Two stereotypical Italian-American New Yorkers accost him, insisting that they know him from somewhere. Alvy says they are mistaken, but inevitably one of them makes the connection: he has seen Alvy doing stand-up on The Tonight Show. When Annie finally arrives, Alvy complains that he has just been mugged by “the entire cast of The Godfather.”
Stylistically, Top Five relies on similar filmmaking techniques as Annie Hall. Allen’s film was famously re-edited late in the post-production process, using voice-over narration and a flashback structure because the film presented in linear order was not working. Early on in Top Five, Rock begins a similar flashback and voice-over structure. When Chelsea asks Andre what his lowest point was, he tells the story of his visit to Houston. As he lands at the airport, Cedric the Entertainer comes to pick him up. Rock freezes the frame, and in voice-over tells us that he should have known better. Cedric then proceeds to get Andre in trouble in a very funny scene involving Cedric’s hyper-masculinity, Rock’s sexual inadequacy, and two prostitutes.
Top Five is obsessed with the history of comedy more generally; it is a film in which Rock brilliantly establishes his rightful place in that canon. In the film’s funniest moment, Andre converses with a fellow inmate in prison. The rapper DMX sings the song “Smile,” associated with its original context, penned by Charlie Chaplin for City Lights (1931), another heart-breaking comedy about love in New York City. It is also a song later repurposed to highlight the tragically failed possibilities of love, as the unendurably sad torch song of a middle-age, drug-addled Judy Garland.
Yet it is to Woody Allen that Rock improbably returns time and time again. During a cab ride together, Andre challenges Chelsea to ask him a tough question instead of a typical reporter’s generic one. She asks bluntly, “Why aren’t you funny anymore?” Andre confesses to Chelsea that he hates Hammy the Bear, that he wants people to take him seriously. The moment invokes Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980). A director played by Allen, Sandy Bates, is confronted by a fan who declares bluntly, “I like your films, you know, the earlier, funny ones.” Having just made a failed existential crisis-based dramatic film, Interiors (1978), Woody Allen has Sandy suffer from his fans’ devotion to his early comedies. Similarly, Andre goes to attend a screening of his dramatic slave revolt film, which is as disastrous as the release of Interiors, sparsely attended (and one of the spectators is clearly asleep). To Andre’s chagrin, this is the only screen on which his film is playing.
But it is the difference between Woody Allen and Chris Rock that motivates the contemporary relevance of Top Five. Rock transforms the primary literary intertext of Annie Hall. Like most Woody Allen films, Annie Hall is built upon the Pygmalion myth, especially as articulated by George Bernard Shaw, and the musical film adaptation of his play, My Fair Lady (1964). Henry Higgins educates Eliza Doolittle so well that she rejects his love and leaves him. Similarly, Alvy meets Annie, who is fascinated by his intelligence. However, what she learns after he teaches her is that he is a neurotic mess, and she has to move on to better prospects.
Top Five rejects this pessimistic literary lineage. Instead, it engages a different mythic structure, that of Cinderella. At the beginning of the film, Andre examines a book, The Cinderella Effect (And Why It’s Wrong) sitting on a desk in Chelsea’s apartment. Chelsea tells Andre that her daughter has been working on a project at school, re-writing a classical story, Cinderella using black characters. This is, of course, the exact project of Top Five. When all seems lost in the burgeoning romance between Andre and Chelsea, she gives him hope by including a pink slipper in a bag for him to discover. As the film ends in limbo, he is poised to become the prince in the fairy tale, seeking out Chelsea, the owner of the slipper.
The embrace of the message of Cinderella, that love really is possible, even if difficult, transforms the Annie Hall references, deflecting them in a new direction. In Annie Hall, we see in flashback Alvy’s performance in front of a college audience, the moment when he met his first wife. However, because this is all in the past, it becomes a study in the failure of love. In Top Five, Chelsea says she knows how great Andre was because she saw him perform stand-up at SUNY Purchase when she was a student. The past becomes the fuel for a future romance, not something already doused and in ruins.
Finally, Top Five transforms the study of comedians and their roots. In Annie Hall, Alvy nostalgically recalls his childhood in Brooklyn, growing up under a roller coaster at Coney Island. This background serves productively and humorously for Allen as the fuel that drives his comedy. For his part, Andre returns to his working-class neighborhood, only to be accosted by his father, played by Ben Vereen, who hits his son up for money. In a heart-breaking scene, Andre gives his dad all of the money he has in his pocket, and walks away in disgust.
Rock creates a less narcissistic world, one in which the hardships of daily life are not nostalgically contained, but whose direct pain lead to great stand-up comedy, and great cinema. Rock spins a sublime transformation of Annie Hall, using similar material to grapple with issues of race unlike anything ever in a Woody Allen movie. Top Five is ekphrastic art at its very best, venerating its source, learning from its mastery, but also moving beyond it in fresh and stunning ways.
– Walter Metz