Birdman has racked up the SAG and Golden Globe nominations this past week. But somehow, big fan of Michael Keaton though I am, that film, remarkable though it is, rubs me the wrong way. Check out my list, on Topless Robot, of some reasons why.
Opening this week:
Top Five—Chris Rock is the best American stand-up comedian currently active, and one of the greatest of all time. He is, beyond doubt, a comedy star. But somehow he’s never been able to make a convincing case that he’s a movie star. Something about the guy’s presence has always seemed to shrink a little, grow weaker, when he’s not on stage by himself, but is surrounded by a bunch of actors in a fiction film.
This has nothing to do with his talent. He’s natural and believable enough onscreen, and in an early supporting role in New Jack City (1991) he showed himself capable of powerful acting. But when he’s at the center of a movie, he suddenly no longer has that electric command of the audience’s attention that he has doing stand-up. His star vehicles, like Bad Company, Down to Earth and I Think I Love My Wife, make a sadly forgettable list.
The bad news about his new film Top Five, which he also wrote and directed, is that it doesn’t entirely end this streak. It isn’t a knockout. The good news is that it’s nonetheless the best he’s done so far, by a good margin, and its best scenes are vibrant, complex and extremely funny.
The film, Rock’s version of Sullivan’s Travels or Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, traces a long day in the life of Andre Allen (Rock), a comedian and the star of a string of idiotic but lucrative “Hammy the Bear” comedies. Andre’s in New York trying to promote his new movie Uprize, a tortured drama about Haitian revolutionary Dutty Boukman, and to attend a bachelor party for his upcoming wedding to a reality-TV diva (Gabrielle Union). He agrees, reluctantly, to be interviewed by a New York Times contributor (Rosario Dawson), a big fan of his stand-up who disapproves of the cheesy commercial turn his career has taken.
Can you guess where this is headed? Well, you’re right, but the plot, such as it is, isn’t the point here. Rock has cunningly structured the film so that Dawson provides an onscreen audience for his riffs on various subjects. There are also terrific freestanding sequences, like a punishingly funny (and dirty) flashback of Andre’s lowest point, or a raucous ensemble scene when he visits his family.
The movie hits some false notes and dawdles on a bit too long, and in any case it comes nowhere near Rock’s strongest stand-up. Even so, at least for fans of this genius, it’s well worth seeing.
Exodus: Gods and Kings—For all his diligence as an actor, Christian Bale—like Rock, I suppose, only more so—sometimes shows a recessive puniness of spirit as movie star. At least for me, he lacks the grandeur to play a superhero.
Theoretically, this might make him right for the role of Moses in a movie about the Old Testament prophet, who was, after all, an unimpressive speaker in his own opinion. In practice, however, giving the lead in a nearly three-hour epic to a guy with a brick in his mouth turns out to be inadvisable. Say what you will about Charlton Heston’s monolithic turn in The Ten Commandments, but you caught every furious word. When the old Pharaoh (John Turturro) asks if the Egyptians can beat the Hittites or if the slaves are about to revolt or whatever, Bale’s Moses replies “Fribshm mblim snablub griflb.”
That said, the plagues and miracles are entertainingly staged by director Ridley Scott, and Ramses, played by Joel Edgerton—no champ in the diction department either—has our sympathy when he loses his child on Passover. There’s some ingenious dialogue, too, particularly between Moses and God, here personified as a rather cheeky little boy. The kid has the diction of an RSC actor, by the way. I kept waiting for The Almighty to reply to one of Bale’s mumbles with “I’m sorry, I may be All-Knowing, but I didn’t catch that.”