For the first 10 minutes of Chris Rock’s Top Five, you may be tempted to bolt. The jokes are too simple, and the idea proposed — that the clearly autobiographical character is staging an image reboot as the star of more serious work (ahem, Birdman) — seems a tad trite. In fact, the film within the film, upon which the main character pins his comeback hopes, is far too stupid. It seems like an awkward farce that doubles as Rock’s homage to Woody Allen.
But wait. Somewhere in the first half hour, the movie gets unexpectedly great. The device is simple: Rock plays Andre Allen (get it?), a former stand-up comic hungry for some authenticity in his fame-charged life. He’s getting attention for all the wrong reasons: His new movie isn’t playing well with critics while his incipient marriage to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) is garnering him too much of the sleazy kind of notoriety. Meanwhile, he has to do an interview with a New York Times journalist (Rosario Dawson) who keeps hitting on nerves that annoy and provoke.
Actually, the best part of this tightly packed selfie is all of the unexpected places it takes you. Allen and his interviewer take a long stroll through Manhattan and return to his old neighborhood, where an uproarious confrontation with his family ensues. Still, a sense of unaccomplished hopes always seems to be lurking nearby. The film is sexy and funny and seems anarchic until you realize how well-crafted the script is. After the initial dull-wittedness, we get a taut narrative that Rock assembled from bits and pieces of his own life and its surrounding pop-culture fizz. The film percolates with beats and observations of hip-hop artists drawn from the title’s list. It works even though it shouldn’t, drawing from the fast and shrewd observations of a great comic artist who — like Woody Allen — knows when to mix romance into the punch lines.