Chris Rock established himself as one of our foremost comics with his 1996 HBO special, Bring the Pain.
Nearly two decades later, he proves he's also a brilliant filmmaker with Top Five, a stunning, joyous, big-screen comedy written and directed by and starring the 49-year-old Rock.
An innovative take on familiar material, Top Five is an exquisitely paced, rich, idiosyncratic, satirical, yet deeply moving free-form comedy about a Hollywood star who is shadowed for one day by a New York Times reporter.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a middle-aged comic actor and recovering alcoholic whose brief encounter with the bright, beautiful, no-nonsense reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) forces him to reevaluate his life.
Twenty years earlier, Andre had won acclaim, if not fame and fortune, for his stand-up act, a frenetic Richard Pryor-esque (and Chris Rock-ian) whirlwind fueled by alcohol and a deep vein of half-repressed rage. Within a decade, he achieved celebrity on the back of a series of sub-Mensa action comedies that featured Andre, in a full-body plush animal costume, as Hammy the Bear.
Now approaching 50, Andre has become deeply disillusioned. Tired of making dumb throwaway films, he has vowed never to do comedy again. As the film starts, Andre is on a publicity junket in New York to peddle his first dramatic film, Uprize!, a historical costumer about an 18th-century slave uprising in Haiti. Despite its earnestness, the film is a laughable disaster. (Rock gives us hilarious sequences from the faux-film, which looks like a Saturday Night Live send-up of 12 Years a Slave.)
To his chagrin, Andre is followed everywhere by the relentless Chelsea. A single mom and recovering addict herself, she takes seriously the recovery movement's edict that one must practice rigorous honesty in all things. She demands the impossible: that Andre drop his carefully crafted, media-friendly mask and show his true self - in all its glory, in all its ugliness - for just one day.
Chelsea's fighting an uphill battle. In a bid to increase his media profile, Andre has sold his heart and soul to Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), a narcissistic reality star who is also in New York - with a camera crew and an army of publicists, hair stylists, and makeup artists - to finalize arrangements for the couple's coming wedding, a multimillion-dollar, Kardashian-style affair she hopes will boost her ratings.
As his day progresses, Andre finds himself increasingly fascinated by Chelsea and intensely repulsed by his fiancee.
Top Five is a real talkie - it has little action and long, great expanses of dialogue. Yet it manages to be exciting, vital, alive, thanks to Rock and Dawson's sensitive performances and the energy and chemistry they generate on-screen.
Despite its romantic thrust, Top Five also launches a sharp-edged satirical attack on the media-industrial complex, skewering everything from movie producers to reality-TV stars. Throughout, Rock makes observations - sometimes profound - about our obsession with fame and our news industry's growing inability to discern truth from gossip.
A truly refreshing break from the Hollywood humdrum, the film is a perfect vehicle for Rock's range of talents, giving him plenty of breathing space to launch into his trademark stand-up riffs while grounding him in a story as moving as it is funny.
Top Five ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Chris Rock. With Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Kevin Hart, Karlie Redd, Sherri Shepherd. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 mins.
Parent's guide: R (strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, profanity, drug use).
Playing at: Area theaters.