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Top Five Reviews

In the two previous movies he wrote and directed, Chris Rock explored issues related to authenticity. Head of State exposed the insincerity of politicians, and I Think I Love My Wife dealt with the problem of staying true to your spouse. With his third film, the showbiz/romantic comedy Top Five, he takes a look at the hypocrisy surrounding modern celebrity. Rock stars as Andre Allen, a revered standup comic who is in New York to do press for his latest movie, a serious drama about a Haitian slave revolt. He’s supposed to spend an entire day with Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a reporter assigned to profile him for the New York Times. They soon discover that they are both recovering alcoholics and begin to bond, despite the fact that Andre resents the paper’s critic for giving his film a harsh review. Andre is at a career crossroads. He’s not feeling very funny these days, and he’s worried that all anybody wants from him is to do another installment of his hit action/comedy franchise Hammy the Bear. He’s also engaged to Erica (Gabrielle Union), a reality-TV star. She needs his celebrity to stay famous, and he feels a debt to her because she helped him get sober. As Andre and Chelsea walk around Manhattan and meet various members of his social circle, they come clean with each other about their own lives, and start to wonder if their professional relationship is turning romantic. Chris Rock’s biggest problem as a filmmaker is his inability to write dialogue that doesn’t sound like a standup-comedy routine. His first two pictures crashed and burned because he wasn’t able to find the voices of his characters, and while he hasn’t totally sidestepped that problem here, at least he’s made his main character a standup comic so the rhythm of the dialogue sounds somewhat natural. He’s also cast the film with a number of additional standups (Tracy Morgan, Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones, Cedric the Entertainer) and famous faces in order to get laughs. The standouts include Jerry Seinfeld spoofing himself, and an appearance by DMX that deserves to win some sort of Oscar for the funniest one-scene cameo of the year. Rock’s standup and movies have often wandered into uncomfortable territory when dealing with women, and Top Five doesn’t run away from this motif. Erica and Chelsea are both deceptive to various degrees, and the centerpiece of Andre’s standup act is a joke about how women would rather be married and sick than single and healthy. It’s the least appealing side of Rock’s comic persona, and it feels even more unavoidable here because this is likely his most autobiographical movie. A subplot in which a bisexual guy is physically punished for his desires -- a scene we’re supposed to laugh at -- is equally problematic. Top Five feels like a personal statement from Rock, but he doesn’t seem to be listening to his own muse. Andre is trying to get back to his authentic self, and an impromptu return to standup is what allows him to achieve that. While Rock is explosively funny during this sequence, his work as a writer/director just doesn’t have the same level of insight into topics like human nature and race. The movie ends up arguing that Andre should just stick with standup, and while Top Five is certainly Rock’s best work as a filmmaker, it’s also proof that he shouldn’t quit his day job yet.