Top Five

(2014) ** 1/2 R
102 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Chris Rock. Cast: Gabrielle Union, Adam Sandler, Rosario Dawson, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan.

/content/films/4749/1.jpgWhen it comes to comedy, funny always wins, and Chris Rock's third directorial effort does run on engagingly amusing riffs. But Top Five also steers hard into undisciplined storytelling, damning the comic's overhyped awards-season comedy with the faint praise of being better than (though just as cannily commercial as) the typical Adam Sandler vehicle.

Sandler pops up briefly in Top Five, along with many other celebrity friends of the writer-director. Rock plays Andre Allen, a former stand-up comic who rose to megastardom in three "Hammy the Bear" buddy-cop pictures (in a ludicrous shorthand parody of crap Hollywood comedy, these find Allen wearing a bear suit to fire off a machine gun and wisecracks). The Allen at the outset of Top Five, however, longs to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor, and so earnestly does his promotional duties to flog "Uprize," the historical slave rebellion picture Allen hopes "could be like a Haitian Django."

Allen's getting married in three days to diva Erica (Gabrielle Union), who's shadowed by Bravo's reality-TV cameras; meanwhile, Andre reluctantly agrees to let conspicuously beautiful New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (ever-charming Rosario Dawson)—who, like Andre, is four years sober—trail him around New York City. Long a vocal fan of Woody Allen, Rock not only adopts his name here but openly borrows the central character beat of Allen's Stardust Memories. Though everyone around Andre professes to love his "early, funny" work, he maintains, "I don't feel like doing funny movies anymore. I don't feel funny."

Were Top Five more deeply felt and less by-the-numbers, Rock might have avoided the impression of a long-winded, self-massaging fantasy about reclaiming authenticity (and finding romance with the psychologically incisive woman who helps him do so). Instead, the picture lays what feel like miles of emotionally cliched track (including Ben Vereen playing, in one weightless scene, the jiving leech of a dad who greets Andre as "Hollywood!").

Silly plot twists unfortunately take the edge off a story that keeps name-checking "rigorous honesty," and a film-opening conversation including the line "Sometimes a movie is just a movie...sometimes a joke is just a joke" doesn't quite excuse the film's narrative letdowns, condescending depiction of Erica as a pathetically empty dress ("I don't have a talent!" she wails), or the fleeting but distasteful bits about icky gay sexuality and falsely crying rape.

That said, Top Five is mostly as genial as its writer-director-producer-star. Like seemingly every character in the film, we're relieved when Andre Allen/Chris Rock steps away from the scattered hilarity and simply takes a comedy-club stage to let loose with a stream of signature wit, giving an unintentionally self-defeating meaning to that bit of dialogue "Sometimes a movie is just a movie...sometimes a joke is just a joke."

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