Onstage at Atlanta's Fox Theatre, Chris Tucker is sporting a slick black tuxedo, aslight-ly oversize black bow tie and a grin that seems to span the entire bottom half of his face. It's almost as if he never left. For the most part, he seems like the same collection of exaggerated expressions and comically pitched howls that once made him Hollywood's highest-paid star. But after 2007's Rush Hour 3, for which he got a reported $25 million, Tucker disappeared from multiplexes. As he jokes in his routine, even friends were puzzled. "Make movie, Chris!" he hisses, mimicking his Rush Hour co-star Jackie Chan. 'You can pay your taxes!"
Tucker's main media exposure in the past five years came via the IRS, which filed documents in 2010 claiming he owed $11.5 million in back taxes. But now he's slowly tiptoeing back into the spotlight. This month, he plays a supporting role in David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, his first part in a movie not called Rush Hour since 1997. His portrayal of an escape-happy mental patient is, ironically, his most grounded onscreen performance ever. Early next year, Tucker hopes to have a stand-up film culled from his two-night stint at the Fox playing in theaters. He insists, though, that he never really went anywhere. "I'm just really picky," he says. "A lot of movies came my way, and a lot of them I just wasn't interested in. I was hoping something would come and be out-of-the-box from what I've normally done, but I didn't find it."
For Russell, whose last movie, The Fighter, earned two Oscars and off-the-charts critical acclaim, Tucker's hiatus made him an appealing, if somewhat nerve-racking, choice for Silver Linings Playbook, which also features Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. "I'd be lying if I said there wasn't uncertainty about how he was going to fit into a picture like this," says Russell. "Bringing that kind of a star to this kind of a role, it's like he stepped back to step forward. But actors that have been out of the public consciousness gather a kind of potency."
Considering the tax bill hanging over Tucker's head, it's hard not to wonder how long he can ignore the inevitably huge payday that awaits for another Rush Hour, a third sequel for the hit 1995 stoner classic Friday or some other Hollywood blockbuster that trades on his over-the-top, wisecracking persona. For now, though, Tucker continues to see the value in pickiness. 'You'll be around longer if you don't do any and everything for money," he says. "Doing cool little roles is more important than starring in a big movie that's just not that good."
"Make movie, Chris!" he says, imitating Jackie Chan. "You can pay your taxes!"
This story is from the December 6, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.