Chris Rock’s “Top Five” really zings. It walks and talks through New York daytime streets and nighttime coffee shops, dropping pop-cultural insights along the way.
It backtracks to elaborate, oddball sex scenes, shown in flashback, without stopping its flow. It incorporates two known momentum killers – romantic-comedy tropes and celebrity cameos – but loses only a bit of ground.
“Five” director-screenwriter-star Rock is a stiff actor. But he’s a singular presence – electric yet reassuring. His eyes shimmer with intelligence and a conspiratorial quality that tells his audience he’s in this thing with them.
That presence usually projects more fully in his stand-up act than his movies. “Five,” though, transmits the standup energy to the big screen.
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This occurs, in part, because of constant movement, by characters and hand-held camera, that mimics Rock’s stage traversing in his standup. Rock has directed before (“Head of State”), but not with such visual assurance.
It’s also because he plays someone close to himself – Andre Allen, stand-up comic turned film superstar via an embarrassing trilogy in which he donned a bear suit. Actually, this sounds more Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy. But close enough.
But “Top Five” (the title refers to Andre and cohorts’ on-the-spot rankings of best-all-time rappers, with everyone from KRS-One to Salt ’n’ Pepa making someone’s cut) entertains more than any previous film in which Rock was top-billed primarily because its content as well plays like an extension of Rock’s stand-up act.
All that walking and talking, mostly of it by Andre and New York Times reporter Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), who is interviewing Andre about his new movie, lets Rock make observations without needing to do a lot of emoting.
The difference here is that rather than just offering his tidbits to the ether or to a comedy crowd who will do little but laugh in response, Chelsea talks back.
Andre offers his theory to Chelsea that the release of the original “Planet of the Apes” – a film long considered to have racist underpinnings – in April 1968 prompted Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination the next day. Chelsea dismisses his theory immediately, as they walk and talk.
Rock organically incorporates standup-appropriate bits into other situations as well. Andre is visiting his hometown of New York from Los Angeles to do press for his new film, a serious historical drama about a Haitian slave revolt. He returns to his old neighborhood, to visit cousins and friends.
This sequence plays like a “Saturday Night Live” reunion from two decades or two weeks ago. Rock’s fellow alum Tracy Morgan appears alongside current “SNL” players Michael Che, Jay Pharoah and Leslie Jones (a stylistically emphatic comic, Jones is the standout here).
The actors share a fast-paced timing as their characters run through a range of topics, which include their top five rappers as well as the lionization of Tupac Shakur. Had he lived, Andre says, Shakur might be an important political figure today. Or he might be playing the bad boyfriend in a Tyler Perry film.
You get a slight feeling that Rock the stand-up has been sitting on this bit for a while, waiting for the right moment. Yet it does not feel stagey in the context of the scene.
Rock has been a bracing voice on the subject of race while doing real press for his real movie recently, when race has been at the top of the national discussion. “Five,” though, is entertainment, and was finished a while ago. Rock’s commentary within it skews most often to pop culture, and it’s often funny without being especially piercing.
During his busy press day, Rock’s Andre fights same-spiel fatigue while speaking to idiot radio hosts. He fields phone calls from his reality-star fiancée (Gabrielle Union) and executives from Bravo, which airs her show and plans to air the couple’s imminent wedding.
The Kanye-Kardashian setup seems up-to-the-minute, but Rock develops it only to the degree it presents a hurdle for Andre’s and Chelsea’s attraction (that he’s her interviewee should be the hurdle, but objecting to a decades-long tradition of cinematic journalists flirting, and worse, with subjects is futile).
Dawson, hair shaved on one side for a Bow Wow Wow effect, embodies the hip, intellectual alternative to the air-brushed fiancée. Dawson has played the cool woman who just happens to be beautiful a few times now. This woman often interests the male character pursuing her more than the audience.
Not here. Rock has written Chelsea as bright and forthright but also vulnerable, and that’s the way Dawson plays her. A single mother, Chelsea runs in the big leagues professionally but has had her share of personal setbacks.
As Chelsea and Andre explore their feelings, the film drags a bit. But at least there is substance to their conversations.
Andre and Chelsea both are recovering alcoholics, and this bond helps him to open up more to her than he would to most reporters. That references to “the program” and “rigorous honesty” exist in the same film as outrageous sex scenes, and eye-wateringly funny sight gags related to those scenes, seems impossible. Yet these elements mesh just fine.
Not to give too much away about the sex scenes, but the actors involved shed all hints of vanity to sell them, and their commitment pays off.
Director Rock smoothly incorporates many recognizable faces without distracting much from the main story. J.B. Smoove, Kevin Hart and Cedric the Entertainer get highly memorable moments as characters. Other celebrities appear as themselves, to only minimally awkward effect.
Rock also deserves credit for not just pointing out a paucity of black women on screen in his recent Hollywood Reporter essay, but acting to combat it. Dawson and Jones shine here, but so does Sherri Shepherd, for a moment, as Andre’s old girlfriend.
Rock lets down Union, though, by glancing over the pathos with which the actress injects the fiancée in one of her few scenes.
But you can’t have everything in one movie, and Rock has given us a lot.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, J.B. Smoove, Leslie Jones
Rated R (strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use)