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Review: With 'Top Five' Chris Rock finds his movie voice

The third film the stand-up has directed is a thrilling mash-up of other comics and tones.

‘Top Five’
Director:
Chris Rock
Stars: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

Chris Rock has directed an Eric Rohmer remake (“I Think I Love My Wife,” based on “Chloe in the Afternoon”). He’s starred in a French-bred picture (Julie Delpy’s “Two Days in New York”). He’s a film guy, albeit one who’s spent most of his film career following the tired path laid out for stand-up comics: broad vehicles, animated voicework, purely comedic cameos, maybe a stray actioner or drama. (“‘New Jack City’ was a looooong time ago,” he said in 2004.) “Top Five” is the first film that really feels like a film, while at the same time feeling at least spiritually like his stand-up; it’s angry but not incensed and only mildly political. But it has the go-anywhere shape of an extended routine, hailing from the same inspirational source. He’s found his movie voice.

A simple description doesn’t convey what “Top Five” is really doing; in fact, it sounds old-hat, hardly more enticing than his “Heaven Can Wait” redo “Down to Earth.” Rock plays Andre Allen, a comic who, unlike Rock, also has a line of gazillion dollar-grossing lowest common denominator blockbusters about a police bear. He wants to be taken seriously, so he’s made a biopic about a Haitian slave revolt. On the day of its release, Andre does a New York press day involving an all-day hang with a New York Times journo, Chelsea (Rosario Dawson). Prickly star-reporter barbs lead to flirty banter, and it’s clear Chelsea’s a better fit for the unhappy Andre than the reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) to whom he’s about to wed, live on her Bravo show.

This takedown of celebrity culture is easy; ditto a knock at Tyler Perry, albeit a funny and scarily probably prophetic one. (It’s not clear how to take his very serious movie, which seems both a “Sullivan’s Travels”-style joke and to a point sincere.) Yet the movie is alive and exciting in the ways it presents itself. This is a party film, with Rock as both star and ringleader, constantly surrendering or sharing the floor with others. There’s a constant flow of big cameos, from Kevin Hart to Jerry Seinfeld, sometimes for just a quickie scene. The clear standout sequence finds Andre dragging Chelsea back to the projects from which he escaped for a get-together that throws the likes of Tracy Morgan, Sherri Shepherd, Michael Che and Leslie Jones in a small apartment for some boisterous ad-lib volleys — a scene of pure joy, where one-upmanship encourages ever-mounting killer cracks.

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Rock is also not the lead; he’s the co-lead, with Dawson his equal. Rock has cited Woody Allen as a major influence; this is in part his much funnier version of “Stardust Memories.” It shares with Woody’s Diane Keaton-era the belief that one is funnier with a romantic partner of equal but different talent, and Dawson’s Chelsea has the quick wit and intelligence that both drives Rock/Andre, but forces the film to be about more than just one-liners. “Top Five” is very funny, but it’s comfortable slipping between jokes and pithy observations to real talk that never seems maudlin.

In fact, even more radical than the improv and party vibe is the way it mixes and matches tones. It’s not afraid to get serious and sincere, which is not to say maudlin — just that it’s honest. It plays with the boundaries of its genres. It’s technically a rom-com, yet it’s never really clear if its two lovers really will end up together; it could easily go with a happy ending or the bittersweet “Roman Holiday” route; either would be fine. It’s a comedy with a serious side, which handles the subject of recovering alcoholics with casual seriousness — and yet it feels completely natural when it suddenly segues, as it does a few times, into over-the-top set pieces (including one fairly surreal stretch in Houston involving Cedric the Entertainer you can't un-see).

Even though it’s tethered to being a day-in-New-York movie, you get the sense that anything, within some semblance of reason, could happen. There aren’t just flashbacks, long and short, but Rock sometimes cuts around within scenes — say, devoting a section of a chat to spy on Chelsea and Andre jump-roping with some kids, just for fun. A few questionable bits remain, as do some matters Rock has to get out of his system (one involves critics and journalists, which fair enough). But for a director who’s already made two noble but so-so films, this is an exciting and promising second debut.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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