Things went splat for Chris Rock in his first two tries as a director (Head of State, I Think I Love My Wife). In Top Five, Rock finds himself at last. He plays Andre Allen, a former stand-up comic who hit it big as a gun-toting bear in the Hammy series. Now Andre doesn't want to be funny anymore. His dead-serious new movie, Uprize!, about the 1791 Haitian revolution, is DOA.
Screenwriter Rock sets the film in Manhattan on a day when Andre is being interviewed by Chelsea Brown (the glorious Rosario Dawson, in her best screen role to date), a reporter for the New York Times. They're wary of each other at first. She's a working single mom, appalled by his privilege. He's engaged to Erica (Gabrielle Union), who has turned their lives into reality TV.
It's a shitload of plot. What lifts it is the odd sense of trust that develops between Andre and Chelsea – they're both recovering alcoholics. Rock and Dawson strike sexy-silly vital sparks. A scene in which they visit a liquor store just to stare and let their fingers brush the bottles treats temptation with raw honesty.
Don't get me wrong. Rock delivers the laughs, big ones, laced with razor-sharp observations on everything from pop culture to racial politics. A flashback to Andre's past involving an orgy, hookers and Cedric the Entertainer is fall-on-the-floor funny. A trip to the housing projects that shaped Andre deepens the humor and lets Chelsea meet his homeys, including Sherri Shepherd, Michael Che and Tracy Morgan. Top Five refers to their game of picking favorite hip-hop artists. But the search here is for authenticity. There are star cameos galore, from rappers to comedians, all too good to give away. The sweetest surprise in this raunchy comic ride is how artfully Rock lets down his guard. His confident, prowling wit as a stand-up has finally found its way to the screen, enhanced by a bracing vulnerability. Top Five is Rock's best movie by a mile. It's authentically hilarious.