Having spent much of the last decade or so lending his voice to big budget animations like Madagascar and Bee Movie or making terrible Grown Up “comedies” with his mate Adam Sandler, comedian-turned-actor Chris Rock is back with an altogether more personal film that’s part-cathartic vanity project, part-exploration of fame, celebrity and the self-obsessed inanities of the entertainment industry.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a formerly very successful stand-up comedian and star of a series of awful “man in a bear suit” cop comedies that have become the bane of his existence. Years after hitting rock bottom due to drug and alcohol abuse, he decides to accept an interview with a spirited reporter (Rosario Dawson) who wants honest answers about his past and his potential future with a reality show star (Gabrielle Union) who wants to broadcast their wedding on TV.
Rock is one of those actors who can never really break away from his own persona – much the same as Russell Brand in that way – and thus sometimes making it hard to see anything but Chris Rock the comedian in whatever role he happens to be playing at the time. The great thing here, however, is that he’s essentially playing a thinly veiled version of himself and the film plays up to that in a fun, self-aware way.
From the terrible-looking “Hammy the Bear” franchise – perhaps akin to something Rock has been offered before or even a sly dig at the Madagascar franchise? – to the types of self-important “message” films he has probably thought of doing in an attempt to be taken seriously by critics and the Academy, the film has a knowingness about it that allows it to stand above the generic trappings of the rom-com genre.
The film opens with Rock and Dawson walking down the street discussing, for example, the legitimacy of having a black President in bringing about real lasting change, immediately making a statement to the audience that the film is going to be taking a swipe at all sorts of topics instead of being just another rom-com with big names. Sometimes it feels like Rock just flapping his gums with cod philosophical observations about modern life but there’s an admirable quality to the film that it at least has a go.
The dialogue fizzes and pops as you’d expect from such a talented comedian – even though it occasionally gets a bit too preoccupied with crass sex jokes and light misogyny – and the material is elevated by likeable performances, not just from a charismatic Rock but the always-watchable Dawson who together make their otherwise trite will-they-won’t-they romance not only palatable but very watchable.
Rock’s film plays like a visual representation of one of his stand-up routines, putting emphasis on the outrageous and shocking to get the “I can’t believe he just said that!” type laughs that were once his bread and butter. As a risqué comedy there are moments that work better than others – a scene where he tries to get a radio recording right is brilliantly executed, a flashback scene involving a horrendous coke-fuelled sexual experience less so – and there are certain last act twists and turns that feel like Rock overreaching. I don’t think it’s as deep and meaningful as it likes to think it is but there’s something to be said about a film that tries to give that little bit extra and does it in an engaging, upbeat fashion.