Chris Rock long ago conquered the comedy concert stage and then put his mark on the TV sitcom with his semi-autobiographical “Everybody Hates Chris.”
But he had little luck on the movie screen, his most artistically successful effort being the 2009 doc “Good Hair.”
“Top Five” changes everything. Written and directed by Rock, this meta-saturated comedy/drama may be the biggest surprise of this holiday film season.
Yes, it’s funny, packed with in-your-face dialogue and snarky observations about celebrity and show business. It is frequently off-the-charts rude. It has broad audience appeal.
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But it’s also achingly romantic. It’s not an art film, but an art film fan will find plenty to chew on.
Andre Allen (Rock) has abandoned a huge stand-up career and a series of hit action/comedies — he played a cop in a bear costume — to pursue his vision as a serious artist. (This movie would make a great double feature with “Birdman,” in which an action star played by Michael Keaton is on the same quest.)
Andre is in New York to promote his new film, “Uprize,” an aggressively unfunny (or at least not intentionally funny) historical epic about the bloody Haitian slave revolt of the 1790s. He’s also scheduled to attend his bachelor party, an event being videotaped for the Bravo reality show starring his glamour-puss fiancee, Erica (Gabrielle Union).
Things aren’t going well. Nobody likes “Uprize,” and increasingly Andre feels like an unpaid extra in Erica’s Bridezilla-ish publicity stunt. (Think the first Kim Kardashian nuptials; “Top Five” even lists her current husband, rapper Kanye West, as one of its executive producers.)
And to put the frosting on this ugly cake, Andre’s handlers have set him up to spend the day with Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter profiling the floundering star. Given that one of the Times’ critics regularly savages his movies, it’s little wonder that Andre isn’t looking forward to submitting to a journalistic evisceration.
But the star and the scribe do have something in common: Both are recovering alcoholics, and as the long day progresses they will come to rely on each other to steer clear of the bottle.
For the first 15 minutes or so I wasn’t sure “Top Five” was going to work. The patter between Rock and Dawson feels too scripted, too clever to ring true. But soon the film finds its voice and its pace.
They drag from one dreary radio interview to the next, as Andre plugs a movie nobody wants to see. On the street people stop him to ask when he’s going to put the bear costume on again (any resemblance to Woody Allen’s similarly themed “Stardust Memories” is not coincidental).
And at his bachelor party, packed by guests that include Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg and a bevy of gyrating topless dancers, Andre can’t even indulge in the freely flowing champagne. (There’s a borderline brilliant scene of Andre and Chelsea on a wish-list cruise through a liquor store, handling the bottles as if they were precious works of art. At one point the reluctantly sober Chelsea tries to smell her favorite brand through the unopened cap — the moment is almost heartbreaking in its yearning.)
Throughout, “Top Five” scores points for social commentary. In some ways it’s like a dramatized version of a great Chris Rock concert.
But equally impressive is the chemistry that develops between Rock and Dawson. It’s not an easy progression, but it has both brains and heart. And Dawson provides a bit of dramatic depth that helps anchor Rock’s somewhat more cliched performance.
Without tying everything up in a neat little bow, “Top Five” suggests that perhaps Andre has turned a corner.
The film looks great — the NYC photography is by Manuel Alberto Claro, a veteran of Lars Von Trier’s projects — and the supporting cast is impossibly deep: Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, Romany Malco, J.B. Smoove, just for starters.
Some of the playing is broad — Morgan, for instance, offers his stock bombast — but a few players are terrific. Particularly fine is Smoove as Andre’s bodyguard, a blend of goofy humor and genuine concern. You wouldn’t mind seeing a movie about just that character.
You can read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.