“Sometimes a movie is just a movie,” remarks one character early on in Chris Rock’s “Top Five”; but in the case of Rock’s own third turn in the director’s chair, it’s also a candid, fresh, ferociously funny snapshot of life in the celebrity bubble. After a couple of ambitious but middling first attempts (“Head of State,” “I Think I Love My Wife”), Rock has finally found a big-screen vehicle for himself that comes close to capturing the electric wit, shrewd social observations and deeply autobiographical vein of his standup comedy. At once personal in its sensibilities, yet made with an eye towards reaching a broad, mainstream audience, “Top Five” sparked a well-deserved bidding war following its Toronto premiere, and should soon become a welcome addition to some lucky distrib’s slate.
Whereas Rock turned to French New Wave master Eric Rohmer as the source for “I Love My Wife,” “Top Five” bears the conspicuous influence of classic-era Woody Allen in its ever-present scenes of characters walking and kvetching on the streets of Manhattan and its jaundiced depiction (shades of “Stardust Memories”) of a once-successful comic actor whose fans clamor for him to get back to his “earlier, funnier” self. Perhaps that’s one reason Rock has borrowed Allen’s surname for his “Top Five” alter-ego, Andre Allen, a former standup who hit the Hollywood big-time as the title star of “Hammy the Bear,” an action-comedy trilogy in which he plays the ursine partner of a human policeman.
But whereas Michael Keaton’s similarly franchise-fatigued “Birdman” character seeks career validation in Broadway and Raymond Carver, Andre seeks his in the form of “Uprize!” a big-screen passion project dramatizing the 1791 Haitian Revolution that, when “Top Five” opens, has just been savagely panned in The New York Times. (Clips suggest a cross between “12 Years a Slave” and “Apocalypto,” as directed by Mel Brooks.) That gives Andre pause when he’s asked to spend the film’s opening day in the company of Times profile writer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), but under pressure from his agent (a fiery, flustered Kevin Hart), he finally acquiesces. And when he meets Chelsea and sees that she’s nobody’s fool, he begins to open up to her.
Nothing in “Top Five” requires as much suspension of disbelief as the notion that, in this clamped-down media age, a celebrity of Allen’s stature would give any journalist — even one this smart and beautiful — the kind of access Andre ends up giving Chelsea here. But that’s the sort of minor quibble most audiences will be laughing too hard to notice. As the day winds on and reporter and subject grow flirtatiously closer, Rock stages at least a half-dozen rude and outrageous set pieces that recall the Farrelly brothers at their most inspiredly irreverent, starting with Andre’s recollection of a Texas hotel-room tryst involving a couple of enthusiastic hookers and a good-old-boy concert promoter (played to the hilt by Cedric the Entertainer) that ends in tears of shame, police activity, and several crop-circle-sized stains on the mattress.
Most movies could scarcely top such a scene, and yet Rock manages to do just that only a short while later, when Chelsea one-ups Andre by describing the evolution of her boyfriend’s suspect sexual fetish. But while Rock delivers some great, gross-out payoffs here, they’re leavened with lots of wry pop-culture commentary (including inspired bits on Obama, Tyler Perry, the racial subtext of “Planet of the Apes” and the black man’s difficulty of hailing a cab in New York) and an unusually rich investment in character that always keeps the movie tethered to reality. Rock may be playing close to the vest (it’s tempting to see “Hammy” as an analogue for the star’s voice work in the blockbuster “Madagascar” series), but he’s also very much playing a role, with lots of additional, un-Rock-like dimensions that may not stem directly from personal experience but which have the feel of close observation.
Andre is an alcoholic (as was Rock’s brother, Charles, who died in 2006), in recovery but only holding on by a thread, and wondering if sobriety has dulled his ability to be funny. (The one fleeting scene of Andre and Chelsea — also a recovering addict — browsing a liquor store’s shelves like kids in a candy store is more affecting than all of Kevin Costner’s “Lost Weekend”-ish swilling in concurrent Toronto premiere “Black and White.”) Moreover, he’s a newly-minted reality-TV star, with a Bravo series documenting his impending nuptials to Erica (Gabrielle Union), who helped him to get on the wagon but may not be the love of his life.
It can be hard for a movie to dwell on the problems of the rich and famous without seeming a touch self-serving, but Rock always keeps things in perspective. He shows us how far Andre has strayed from the prodigal comic he was in his youth, and how much he’d like to go back, but how hard that is in the sycophantic, yes-man bubble of A-list fame. In one of the movie’s best stretches, Andre takes Chelsea to visit friends and family in the housing projects where he grew up — a loose, Altmanesque sequence, rich in its sense of community roots, that allows a host of first-rate comic actors (including a pre-accident Tracy Morgan) to riff off each other’s rankings of the all-time greatest hip-hop artists (the top five of the movie’s title).
Rock is enormously appealing here, balancing his patented comic abrasiveness with a real tenderness, the faint bewilderment of an ordinary man blindsided by his own success. And Dawson makes an excellent foil, especially once the movie deploys a genuinely clever third-act twist that radically redraws the boundaries on their relationship. Unsurprisingly, Rock stuffs the film with a surfeit of unbilled celebrity cameos, the best of which involves a confluence of Charlie Chaplin and a titan of contemporary hip-hop that any movie in “Top Five'”s flight path will be hard pressed to top for sheer blissful weirdness. A top-tier tech package results in a sleeker, slicker look than most American comedies, particularly Lars von Trier cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro’s beautiful widescreen lensing, which makes New York itself a vivid and ever-present character as Rock and Dawson zig-zag the city from Morningside Heights to East Harlem, and from the West Village to Union Square.