By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — We already knew Chris Rock was funny.

After all, we’ve watched him do killer standup comedy for years, characterized by insightful and hilarious commentary, even if his big-screen career was spotty and sparse.

But he may have just changed all that by stepping back behind the cameras.

(3 stars out of 4)

(3 stars out of 4)

Rock wrote, directed, and stars in the fitfully funny and focused-on-fame Top Five as former comic Andre (as opposed to Woody) Allen, a recovering-alcoholic comedian trying to reinvent himself as a film actor/movie star.

As for his big-screen career, he’s already a star of sorts, having hammily headlined four “Hammy the Bear” flicks as, you guessed it, Hammy, which remains a bit much for him to bear.

(Remember, Rock provided the voice of Marty the zebra in the animated Madagascar flicks.)

What Allen wants is to be taken seriously as a movie maker.

So he shoots and releases a flick that’s about as far from comedy as a movie gets.  His first foray into serious drama is Uprize, a look at the 1791 Haitian slave rebellion, which the critics pan and the public ignores.

Meanwhile, his upcoming wedding to reality-TV star Erica Long, played by Gabrielle Union, has become a major media happening and has pulled him, willy-nilly, into the reality-TV arena.

Then, Allen agrees to a daylong interview in Manhattan for a profile by disarming New York Times entertainment reporter Chelsea Brown, played by Rosario Dawson, at the advice of his pleading agent, played by Kevin Hart.

The two of them proceed to walk-and-talk through his old Brooklyn neighborhood for more than a day, à la Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, and Allen finds himself revealing things to Ms. Brown that he’s never articulated in public before.

And while he’s granting her unprecedented access to his opinions, feelings, memories, and secrets, she’s doing the same for him.  Their connection is becoming much more than an interview.

This is Rock’s third stab at directing, following 2003’s Head of State and 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife (both passably watchable comedies but nothing to write home about), and it’s the first of his stints behind the camera that captures the autobiographical spark and observational wit of his bracing standup act.

As a director, Rock may be a little too willing to let digressions interrupt and thus slow down his narrative’s momentum, and screenwriter Rock lets a few credulity-straining twists slip through the cracks.

But actor Rock’s comedic-leading-man contribution as an exasperated but appealing talent anchors the film and keeps it bubbling along and making us laugh anyway. And Rock and the smooth-as-silk Dawson certainly have sufficient chemistry in the film’s key relationship.

The glittering ensemble supporting cast includes Ben Vereen, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg, JB Smoove, Cedric the Entertainer, Jerry Seinfeld, Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharaoh, Sherri Shepherd, Leslie Jones, Michael Che, and Romany Malco, many of them offering takes on the top five hip-hop artists of all time, a trivial pursuit that lends the film its intriguing title.

And it’s the first comedy in quite some time to boast as many bust-a-gut water-cooler moments.

So we’ll stand up to 3 stars out of 4 for this raunchy romantic satire and celebrity romp.  Top Five may not quite live up to its name, but as entertaining comedies go, it’s as solid as a Rock.

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