– by David Morgan-Brown
It’s not often that a film about a comedian is playing at the cinemas, but now you have the choice between two – one American, one Australian. There’s Top Five, the new Chris Rock film which is quintessential Rock material, crossing the personal details and filmic style of his previous films, but with the assured comedic social commentary and gross-out humour of his early stand-up work. The other is Manny Lewis, starring Australian comedian Carl Barron as the miserable lonely title character who tries to find some life in the moments when he’s off stage.
Chris Rock applies the auteur theory to his film, writing, directing, and starring in this semi-autobiographical tale of a famous, middle-aged, four-years-sober comedian who has an established legacy of making people laugh through his stand-up or his comedy films (like the hilariously awful ‘Hammy the Bear’ films), yet as he is interviewed by journalist Chelsea (Rosario Dawson) on the eve of his marriage to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), he reveals he doesn’t want to make funny films anymore … along with an all-sorts of other embarrassing, revealing, and sticky anecdotes and feelings he’s had over his decade in the spotlight.
Manny Lewis is a different and tamer piece of work. Barron has his stand-up comedy friend, Anthony Mir, to direct this film that is also semi-autobiographical and that also has a romance story strand that is often predictable and lighter than the comedian’s real-life relationships. Manny Lewis may be inferior in almost every way to the confident Top Five, as it’s not quite as funny, entertaining, or even cinematographically presentable – but it is more dramatic. Taking on the new trope of the “depressed comedian” (though the character rebuts that by stating he’s just “a bit miserable”), the inertia of off-stage celebrity-dom is highlighted right from the beginning in Manny Lewis, as he staves off his boredom and loneliness by starting a costly relationship with the woman on the sex-phone line, whilst also beginning another with a woman in the flesh named Maria (Leeanna Walsman).
Manny Lewis isn’t without its dose of laughs, but it’s an often funny drama compared to Top Five’s sometimes dramatic comedy. The storyline in the latter is small, with just Andre and Chelsea roaming around the city together, awaiting the ticking time-bomb that is Andre’s wedding which he is cautiously anticipating, and already you can probably guess where things are headed. But the smaller details in the story and script are more of a surprising delight, making it an endearing, entertaining, yet still grounded and relatable dramedy (which is more funny than it is dramatic) about the intensity of fame for a comedian, reminiscent of 2009’s Funny People, which was the last time Adam Sandler made me laugh until I saw his cameo in this film (let’s hope Chris Rock doesn’t go down the similar wrong path). Top Five considers the whole chaos of the tough-shell-brittle-insides of the show-biz of being a highly successful and famous comedian, whereas Manny Lewis takes a far more personal and slightly more human approach.
Both films are flawed and sometimes predictable, but they are both funny and serious when they need to be. It’s interesting to see such a cultural difference between the two, Top Five almost never stops with its barrage of comedy commentary, but Manny Lewis offers a slightly slower film to rope its audience into the sedated atmosphere of its title character’s living. It’s a coincidence for two films about this sort of entertainment profession to be released in the same week, yet it’s even more of a coincidence that they’re both so watchable and so revealing of the inner workings of being a comedian. There’s a plenty of laughs to be had with this duo of films, and plenty to reveal about these funny people.