Review: Top Five - Chris Rock finds his groove in his new comedy
I've always had the impression that Hollywood never knew quite what to do with Chris Rock. He exploded with scatter-gun brilliance as a stand-up in the early 1990s, acknowledging his debt to Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy while firmly dissenting from some of the less savoury aspects of their race and gender-obsessed routines.
A career in movies seemed the logical next step, as it had so profitably been for Murphy, but Rock has proved a much harder talent to accommodate. He's always seemed uncomfortable mouthing other people's dialogue, and the racy romcoms he's sometimes been cast in don't seem to be his style at all.
His most successful movie role to date has been voicing Marty the zebra in the Madagascar cartoon franchise, and his own efforts at writing and directing, Head of State (2003) and I Think I Love My Wife (2007) have been patchy and unconvincing. Till now, that is.
Because in Top Five, Mr Rock comes of age as a film-maker in a comic drama that uses its blunt and sometimes crude storyline to ponder the realities of fame, celebrity, blackness and authenticity.
In a possible nod to Woody Allen's 1980 film Stardust Memories, with which Top Five has a considerable amount in common, Rock plays Andre Allen, a once-renowned and edgy stand-up comedian who's become Hollywood's favourite funny-man. He's best known for a Lethal Weapon-style franchise in which he stars as a tough guy called Hammy who wears a bear suit and says "it's Hammy time!" every chance he gets.
He's so famous that strangers buttonhole him in the street and shout his catchphrase at him, but Andre is beginning to tire of all this.
"I don't feel funny any more," he complains to his friend and minder Silk (J.B. Smoove). In an attempt to be taken seriously, Andre has just starred in Uprize!, a worthy drama about a slave uprising in 19th-century Haiti that led to a mass slaughter of white people. But no one seems to think it's any good.
In his frantic endeavours to promote the film, Andre has agreed to an interview with Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times journalist who turns out to have agendas of her own. As she follows him from engagement to engagement, they argue about everything from race politics to the niceties of addiction and the joys of celebrity culture.
That last topic is especially germane since Andre is about to marry Erica (Gabrielle Union), a reality-show celebrity whose priorities are chilling. In other words, Andre is at a crossroads in his life, and Chelsea is just the woman to lead him into a cathartic crisis.
Not everything in Top Five works, and a couple of scenes involving sexual farce seem to belong more to a Seth Rogen film than something as intelligent and pointed as this. But overall Mr Rock gets an awful lot more right than he does wrong, and the film really sparkles whenever he and Ms. Dawson are together, bickering their way around Manhattan much as Woody Allen and Diane Keaton did so often.
Rosario Dawson's part is not merely a foil for Rock's, but a rounded character with foibles and failings of her own who argues with him as an equal and gets some of the funniest lines. Too often Ms Dawson's beauty has condemned her to passive and forgettable roles, and is here presented with a priceless opportunity to show how can good she can be.
There are lovely cameos, too, from the likes of Tracy Morgan, Kevin Hart, Whoppi Goldberg, Taraji P. Henson, Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld, who naturally provides the funniest moment in the film.
In Top Five Chris Rock has the confidence not only to discuss the ongoing issue of race, but also to poke fun at it. And when he tries to flag down a New York taxi to prove that prejudice towards black males is still rampant, a yellow cab stops for him straight away. (16, 102mins)