With all the timely cultural commentary Chris Rock has been making about Ferguson, Staten Island, police chokeholds and the like while doing interviews ostensibly promoting his new film, it's a relief that Top Five is pretty good. Decades into an indifferent film career, Rock finally discovers his "first, best destiny," that he is more a stand-up comic than an actor. And if he's going to write, direct and act in a film, he'd be better off playing a stand-up not unlike Chris Rock.
Rock is never more at home than in the film's stand-up scenes, or its walking-and-riffing moments, with the comic doing killer takes on Planet of the Apes and race relations, Obama and what Tupac Shakur would be doing if he was still alive. "A statesman, a leader," a relative insists. "Tyler Perry movies," Rock cracks back.
Rock plays Andre "Dre" Allen, a New York comic who ventured into movies, made a series of popular but forgettable comedies, fell into drugs and recovered.
Top Five follows Dre through opening day for his new "serious" movie, sure to be a flop. He's playing a Haitian freedom fighter, a leader in the biggest slave rebellion in history, and the day is an endless parade of radio and print interviews promoting the film.
Then there's his bachelor party. Dre is about to marry Erica (Gabrielle Union), a gorgeous and vapid reality TV star — and their courtship and nuptials will be filmed and broadcast on Bravo.
Shadowing him on this long day is Chelsea, a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) assigned to do a profile of a comic their film critic has been vilifying for years.
We meet Dre's lifelong bodyguard and fixer (J.B. Smoove), the friends and family he sort of left behind — including Tracy Morgan, Ben Vereen (as his dad) and the irrepressible Sherri Shepherd, as Dre's ex-girlfriend. The alcoholic flashes back to "rock bottom," a Houston concert date where Dre's in the care of a gonzo promoter played to the hilt by Cedric the Entertainer. Clubs, hookers, drugs and the unsanitary orgy that follows put the guy on the path to recovery.
Dawson, playing a reporter who is a compendium of every ethical violation the Times has admitted to in the past 30 years, confesses her own addictions, flirts, drags her interview subject into her single mom life and hits him with just one hard question.
"How come you're not funny any more?"
Rock is more a genial presence here than an actor playing an addict tested by a bad day. He never lets us see the strain that could make him fall off the wagon. He scores laughs, but generously leaves the outrageous stuff to his legion of supporting players. A funny round table of marital advice is hurled at Dre from his comic pals, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg and Jerry Seinfeld.
The movie has plenty of uncomfortable coincidences — a black man beaten by police and comically put in a chokehold, Dre's joking attitude toward rape and embrace of Bill Cosby.
But seemingly random encounters with juicy cameos are hilarious, and the heart of the piece — what a funnyman needs to do when "I don't feel funny any more" — will be familiar to anyone who knows Woody Allen's best films or Seinfeld's career.
With Top Five, Rock, at 49, has at long last made a movie that will top any list of the five best Chris Rock movies from here on out.