Can Chris Rock save the romantic comedy?
There once was a time when people laughed at romantic comedies. And I don’t mean that they snickered at the term as an epithet for a genre that’s become lazy and formulaic, as many do now. They actually used to laugh because romantic comedies were funny—hence the term, romantic-comedy.
But somewhere after the box-office reigns of Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan, during the Kate Hudson dynasty, and definitely before Good Luck Chuck, rom-coms became a creative wasteland. “Oh, it’s been horrible,” Chris Rock tells EW. “It’s been brutal for 20 years. They always forget the comedy part, and they forget that you can do what would really happen. They never [tell the story of] what would really happen… Maybe (500) Days of Summer, that was pretty good.”
Rock’s latest movie, Top Five, is a romantic comedy in the purest sense of the term—and it’s so good that it might just remind both audiences and an industry that’s basically given up on the genre what they used to love about these movies.
Rock wrote, directed, and stars in the film as Andre Allen, a famous comic movie star who’s angling for an Oscar with a dead-serious movie about the 18th-century Haitian slave uprising. Andre’s sober for the first time in years and about to wed a reality-TV star (Gabrielle Union). Everything collides while he’s conducting an all-day interview with a savvy New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) who just wants to know, “How come you’re not funny anymore?”
No one’s going to be asking Rock that after they see Top Five. The film contains some of the funniest jokes in recent cinematic memory, delivered by some of the funniest people on the planet. The supporting cast includes Kevin Hart, Cedric the Entertainer, Tracy Morgan, and J.B. Smoove (as well as some surprise scene-stealing cameos from some super-famous Friends of Chris.) “I don’t want to say they owed me, but some [favors] you save for a rainy day. And I definitely saved it for a rainy day,” says Rock. “I didn’t have a problem getting anybody—except Louis C.K. and Eddie Murphy. But everybody else said yes.”
Top Five has received extremely positive reviews, and it’s performing reasonably well in its opening weekend considering it’s playing in less than 1,000 theaters. If it catches on and becomes a hit, it could possibly spark a rom-com revival—and maybe even attract some top acting talent back to the genre.
Up until about a decade ago, romantic comedies were essential to the career strategies of Hollywood’s top actresses. Men owned action films, while the most successful actresses—like Roberts, Ryan, Sandra Bullock, Drew Barrymore, and Renee Zellweger—made their fortunes in rom-coms. They didn’t land franchise sequels, but they could reliably crank out rom-coms where they played slightly different variations on the adorable, quirky gal who inevitably falls for the most contemptible scoundrel she’s ever met.
Fast-forward to 2014, and of the 10 actresses on Forbes highest-paid list, only a handful are even still slightly associated with rom-coms. Angelina Jolie? Gwyneth Paltrow? Not a chance. Sandra Bullock dipped back into the genre in 2009’s The Proposal (and All About Steve, oof), but she’s basically moved on to bigger and more serious fare. Cameron Diaz makes straight-up comedies, but she hasn’t headlined a conventional rom-com since What Happens In Vegas. What does it say about the relevance of the genre when the closest thing to a rom-com that Jennifer Lawrence, the biggest female movie star out there right now, has ever even attempted is The Silver Linings Playbook—which might barely qualify only because of its textbook climax?
Lawrence can get any movie made she wants, but her current star power rests in two sci-fi action franchises: The Hunger Games and X-Men. In a genre-swap trend engineered by studios determined to encourage ladies to watch action movies, actresses are headlining more of these films than ever before. (See: Lucy, Divergent, Gravity, Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus.) The other side of that coin is that so-called “date movies” have become more and more about the guy character and his friends. Hence the entire Judd Apatow canon, which includes The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Technically, those hits might be rom-coms—but the romance practically takes a backseat to the bromance between the dude and his crazy fellas.
Top Five successfully blends the best of both worlds. There is most definitely a bro vibe in many of the funniest scenes, as Andre and his close friends do a whole lot of talking about nothing—if nothing is ranking their top five rappers and speculating whether Tupac would’ve gone on to be a major political leader… or the villain in a Tyler Perry movie. Rock wanted to present “the normal conversations—not the contrived romantic-comedy conversations—that happen when you get a bunch of old friends together.”
There is a sweetness and sensitivity in Top Five that never flags despite some hilarious R-rated sequences, and the film ultimately delivers some of that real old-school rom-com magic. If Top Five becomes a hit and jumpstarts the genre, it will be because Rock remembered why romantic and comedy went together so well in the first place.