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“Top Five”: Saga of a comedian’s discontent

Chris Rock will be 50 in eight weeks, and he still hasn’t found a movie that fully captures his skills as one of the keenest comic minds in America.

“Top Five” comes closest – the bar has been set low until now – but he isn’t quite daring enough to carry off his audacious vision. It’s funny most of the time, fast all of the time, disgusting some of the time and intermittently honest. It’s also uniquely his vision: He wrote, directed and stars as a rich comedian who’s at the top of his game and tired of his job.

It opens with torrential force, as Andre (Rock) and Chelsea (Rosario Dawson) walk down the street in a friendly but heated argument about social change. It ends in tranquility, with Andre in the back of a limo thinking about his next move. In between, it veers from a loudly comic visit to his old neighborhood to quietly tense moments of emotional intimacy.

She’s a New York Times feature writer sent to follow him for a day. Andre hates the idea but gives in, because he has a dud movie to promote: “Uprize!,” where he plays the leader of rebellious Haitian slaves. The two bond, though she’s nominally attached to a disc jockey, and he’s about to marry the shallow star of a reality TV show (Gabrielle Union, thrown away here).

Rock gets to the heart of a performer’s dilemma: How do you reinvent yourself and/or keep caring about your work when audiences pigeonhole you? Andre has made three movies playing Hammy, a violent policeman who’s also a bear – yes, that’s ridiculous – and cumulative grosses of $600 million mean producers and moviegoers want a fourth.

Woody Allen covered similar territory in “Stardust Memories,” where he played a pretentious movie director who didn’t want to be funny any more. Though Allen claimed the character didn’t reflect his own attitude, it was easy to believe he did. It’s equally easy to think Andre’s speeches reflect a creator chafing under the limitations Hollywood has applied.

Allen turned to fantasy for his version; Rock exaggerates but stays within the bounds of reality. Yet he hasn’t figured out how to tell this story credibly. He relies on coincidence, improbable behavioral changes and flat-out nonsense: The New York Times employs a movie critic no one but the editors has ever seen.

Rock almost gets us past these howlers with sheer energy. The camera moves quickly from scene to scene and often within a scene; people speak overlappingly, walking or riding as they talk, and that pulse hardly ever lets up until the end.

Rock and Dawson have combustive chemistry – “like fire and (gun)powder, which as they kiss, consume,” in Shakespeare’s words. They’re so quick-witted we can never believe she’d saddle herself with her drippy boyfriend, or he’d marry a fool he doesn’t love. (He claims the TV star helped him get sober. That’s unbelievable, too.)

Rock has such personality that I kept wishing some other writer and director would figure out a way to let him stay true to his nature in a well-crafted and challenging role. But maybe he’ll always be lightning that can’t be caught in one of Hollywood’s bottles.

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