“Top Five” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate and Star Cinema. R, 1:46, three stars out of four.
Chris Rock’s movie career has never come close to the ferocious brilliance of his stand-up act (“Grown-Ups 2,” anyone?), but he gets quite a bit closer with “Top Five,” which he wrote and directed as well as stars in. I think I would still rather watch Rock hold a press conference about “Top Five” than actually act in it, but the movie is the nearest we’ve come to hearing Rock’s authentic comic voice on film.
Part of the reason may be the resemblance between Rock and the character he plays, acclaimed comedian turned sellout movie star Andre Allen. Best known for dressing up in a bear suit in the esteemed “Hammy the Bear” trilogy, Allen is trying to branch out with his own auteur project, in this case a historical drama about a Haitian slave massacre called “Uprize.” (It doesn’t look much better than “Hammy.”)
“Top Five” takes place in one day, opening day for “Uprize,” and while Allen navigates radio-show interviews and press junkets to try and get attention for “Uprize,” all anybody wants to talk about is his wedding that weekend to a reality show star (Gabrielle Union), sponsored by Bravo.
A lot of the show-business satire of “Top Five” is spot on — Allen fields rambling non-questions from entertainment journalists, or goaded into recording wacky drop-ins for local radio stations, where a white producer (Brian Regan) eggs him to “put more stank on it!”There are glimpses here and there of what we think it’s like to be Chris Rock; one recurring image is of Allen walking down the street, and people around him are shouting his name or “Hammy the Bear.” And he’s largely oblivious, having grown so used to attention that the sound of it fades into the background like a taxi horn or car alarm.
But the best parts of “Top Five” feature Rosario Dawson, playing a New York Times journalist hired to shadow Allen for a day and write a story about him. Dawson is just an immensily likable, engaged, alive actress, and she really raises Rock’s acting game here in a way nobody else has before. As they walk along Manhattan streets, talking about the pitfalls and benefits of fame, or whether the “Planet of the Apes” movie and the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination are connected, it’s just fun to watch them volley good lines back and forth.
“Top Five” has a few great scenes, as when Allen goes home to his old housing projects and visits with old friends and family (including Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, and Ben Vereen), the awkward kidding between them not quite hiding the envy that some feel at his success. (They all insist that they’re funnier than him, as if they could have been famous movie stars, too.) And there is a jailhouse cameo by rapper DMX that is the funniest thing in the movie, because DMX sings a song that is probably the last song one would expect DMX to sing. It is truly inspired.
The movie connecting those great scenes, and those wonderful sidewalk moments between Rock and Dawson, is fine. In the end, “Top Five” doesn’t amount to anything larger than its parts, doesn’t have anything that trenchant to say about fame or class or race beyond Rock’s stray observations here and there.
But it’s a very enjoyable time spent with one of America’s best comedians, who is finally figuring out how to put more of what makes Rock Rock in a movie. No Top 5 list of Chris Rock movies would be complete without it.