RATING |

IN "TOP FIVE," Chris Rock turns writer and director, and turns exasperation with his own spotty film career into his best movie to date.

"Top Five" is like a funky, more freewheeling version of "Birdman," following (in what feels like real time) a typecast movie star as he tries to break free of his image, betting his career rehabilitation on a high-risk attempt at "serious" art.

The difference here is that Andre Allen (Rock) is obviously in way over his head - after a lucrative career built on a goofball movie trilogy called "Hammy" (a cop dressed as a bear), he's trying to mount a historical epic about the Haitian slave revolt - something akin to Adam Sandler (who guest stars here, along with dozens of other comics) playing Che Guevara.

The movie is opening to horrid reviews, Andre is wading through a day of shallow, hostile press encounters, and being followed everywhere by a persistent New York Times reporter named Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), who's determined to get something truly revealing.

But Andre has a bigger problem - he's on the verge of a wedding to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) whose for-profit staging of their wedding (and Andre's bachelor party) looms as an ever larger sticking point for Andre, and a referendum on his true feelings for his fiancee.

His cold feet get colder as his attraction to Chelsea grows stronger - this as he takes her on a mini-tour through the old neighborhood (director Rock adds flashbacks that explain Andre's rise and fall in Hollywood).

All of this is very funny, informed by Rock's insider's view of big-time show business, made specific by his unique perspective on race and class, success and failure.

The highlight, surely one of the funniest scenes of the year, has Andre introducing Chelsea to friends and family in his ex-wife's apartment (an ensemble that includes Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharoah and Sherri Shepherd). They make (mostly) good-natured attacks, he responds - it's like watching a comedy ninja fight 20 people at once.

Bear in mind "Top Five" is not for all tastes - a peek at Andre's substance-abusing past, involving Cedric the Entertainer, is as vulgar as anything Rock has done on stage, and almost as funny.

And yet the movie is very serious about Andre's artistic and career confusion - his desire to move away from his past, his simultaneous fear that he'll never be that funny, or relevant, again.

Rock really puts you in that space - everywhere Andre goes (including prison) there's someone yelling "Hey, Hammy" and it's half compliment, half taunt. It dovetails with how Andre feels - always dangerously poised between success and abject failure.

In the end, Andre tries to find refuge in his authentic self, which for him is stand-up.

With "Top Five," former stand-up Rock proves just the opposite - that he can take on movies and win, big time.

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