Movie critics irritate Chris Rock. So do obsessed fans, reality TV, celebrity culture and Hollywood in general. Frankly, I'm thrilled that all these things push Rock's buttons.
That pique produces the stinging, sweet hilarity of "Top Five." It has also finally given Rock the big-screen role this stand-up great deserves. As an affable but mediocre comic named Andre Allen, Rock rules.
The fate of Andre and "Top Five" rests very specifically in the comedian's hands. As writer, director and star, he has a great deal of control, and he uses it wisely and wittily.
Rock starts by packing "Top Five" with some very funny friends, among them Kevin Hart, Cedric the Entertainer, JB Smoove, Tracy Morgan, a contingent from the current "Saturday Night Live" cast, including Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones and Michael Che, plus some smartly curated cameos who draw laughs with the mere sight of their famous faces.
To the writing, Rock brings the discipline of his stand-up. Even with some improvisation, there is not one throwaway line in this fat-free script. There is, however, every bit of the provocative edge, raw language, racial assessments, sexual innuendo and political incorrectness that characterizes his stage work. That sensibility is reflected by director of photography Manuel Alberto Claro and production designer Richard Hoover as scenes in projects, brownstones, high-end talent agencies and luxe hotels shift the economics of the look.
Rock has also found a way to take some of the edge off, embracing his romantic side. Andre is charismatic and caring as well as caustic and cutting. It's a double-edged sword for a character, but the actor wields it skillfully.
The "top five" of the title refers to one of the film's running bits — asking friends, family and strangers to name their top-five hip-hop artists. Perhaps the choice was influenced by the fact that Jay Z and Kanye are co-producers and the Roots' Questlove is the film's executive music producer.
The truth is that a top five can consist of anything — movies, quarterbacks, fast-food burgers, siblings. The significance is in what the choices say about one's interests, generational mind-set, ethics and aesthetics. Certain top fives in the film drive the action, determine the detours.
Set in New York City, the film unfolds over one very long, jampacked day in Andre's life as he tries to reenergize his flagging career. But rather than start at the beginning, we're dropped midstream into a flirty conversation between an attractive and animated couple (Rock and Dawson) as they navigate a crowded city street.
Theirs is a playful debate, the interaction loose and easy. A range of topics makes their docket from the state of Obama's presidency to who's currently ruling the hip-hop scene. Just as we're getting the hang of hanging with these two, the film cuts back to the beginning of our day with Andre.
Everything in "Top Five" is tied to two major life events for Andre. One is the release of his first "serious" film after a profitable but played-out run as the star of the "Hammy the Bear" movie franchise. The buddy-bear-cop comedies features Andre in a giant bear suit. Hammy haunts him throughout the day.
Andre's artistic hopes hang on a historical drama titled "Uprize," opening in theaters on the very day of "Top Five's" action. Based on a Haitian revolt in which most of the island's whites are massacred, the cheesy B-movie style matches its bad dialogue and box office prospects perfectly. A new Tyler Perry movie titled "Boo" — think Madea and a haunted house — is Andre's main competition. Guess which is winning?
The other seminal moment is Andre's upcoming marriage to reality star Erica Long (Union), on TV of course, with the producers deciding everything from celebrity invites to the size of the rings.
As if things weren't complicated enough, a New York Times writer is pressing to do a day-in-the-life piece, spending the next 24 hours at Andre's side. This is where Dawson as the free-spirited girl of the opening scenes comes in. Her name is Chelsea Brown, and Andre's issue is not so much with her as with her newspaper's movie critic, some faceless guy who hates Hammy and everything else Andre has done.
He resists. She insists. He relents. And for the rest of the day a tide of feelings, emotions and insights bubbles up as Chelsea and Andre get to know each other and possibly begin to fall in love.
One of the refreshing aspects of "Top Five" is the way the women are drawn. They are complex, rather than cliches. Chelsea's charm is thanks to Dawson's talent for blending smart and sophisticated with vulnerable and accessible. Reality star Erica might have been a well-packaged bit of brittle emptiness. But Union infuses her with a warm heart. Meanwhile, Vanessa (Shepherd), Andre's ex-wife, is a shot of surprising sweetness. She's still a part of his extended family and only somewhat resentful that she didn't stay around long enough to share in his success.
While women provide the complications, the men have Andre's back — or at least most of them do. Playing brothers, friends, agents, promoters, drivers, they make even Andre's bumpiest road smooth. Cedric as a slick out-of-town promoter is terrific, Hart as his agent is perfectly wired and Smoove as Andre's BFF is a cat who never loses his cool.
Basically, "Top Five" is fully loaded. The laughs are earned, the intelligence never disappears, all the performers shine. But Rock is the diamond — raw, rough and rare.
MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In general release