Chris Rock, the writer, director and star of "Top Five," can take all credit and blame for delivering one of the most maddening comedies of the year. It can be delightful, intelligent, crude, clumsy and culturally tone-deaf, depending on which scene is rolling by. One minute it's a major letdown, the next minute a joy to watch.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a popular stand-up comic -- hmmm -- who insists that he is now a serious actor. "Uprize," Allen's violent new drama about a Haitian revolution, is playing to empty theaters, while his reality-star fiancée, Erica (Gabrielle Union), is rearranging seats for their televised wedding. (Adam Sandler gets bumped back a row.) Andre's current promotional tour feels poorly planned: "I just thought I'd say 'hi' to all my Haitian fans, here on 'Opie & Anthony.' "
Enter Chelsea Brown, a New York Times reporter played by a street-smart Rosario Dawson. She asks a blunt question: "Why aren't you funny anymore?" As the two ramble around New York City, their ongoing argument turns into mutual therapy (both are recovering alcoholics) and then into mutual attraction.
At its best, "Top Five" makes a case for Rock as the best American director of the French New Wave. The movie bubbles with the joie de vivre of a Francois Truffaut movie (which Rock may have picked up while starring in Julie Delpy's free-form 2012 comedy, "2 Days in New York"). The best scenes feel unscripted: Rock just riffing, Dawson needling him, and supporting players like Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan and many real-life journalists and celebrities adding to the fun. Propelled by Questlove's rhythmic score, "Top Five" often sparkles with a jazzy, metropolitan energy.
At its worst, "Top Five" resorts to raunchy, pandering humor, most notably a gross-out routine involving Cedric the Entertainer and two prostitutes, and a gay joke that comes out of nowhere and goes on forever. The more closely scripted scenes feel derivative, clunky and false.
But then Rock is back, doing something charming like threatening to join a children's game of double-Dutch or making a list of his five favorite rappers (no spoilers). "Top Five" often feels like something truly special -- until it doesn't.