BY JAKE COYLE
NEW YORK — With his latest and best film in tow, Chris Rock is back in the spotlight right when we most need him.
There’s no more salient voice on race in America, not to mention most other things in America, too: marriage, sports, Kanye West. As Rock has prepared to release his film “Top Five” on Dec. 12, his commentary on the grand jury verdicts in Ferguson and New York has been trenchant, and criticism of the movie business — “a white industry,” he called it in an essay for the Hollywood Reporter — has been like water in the desert of a [publicly] tight-lipped Hollywood. Rock is on a truth-telling spree.
And for the first time, Rock has found a way to funnel his strong voice into a fiction film of his own. “Top Five,” a comedy that sparked a bidding war at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a big-screen breakthrough for the stand-up. Excepting his excellent documentary “Good Hair,” Rock’s previous films (“Head of State,” ”I Think I Love My Wife”) were disappointments.
But he’s clearly thrilled about “Top Five,” a romp through celebrity and New York. Rock plays a version of himself, Andre Allen, a comic attempting to turn serious filmmaker. This week he’s crossing the country promoting the film in five cities each day, in a stunt that brings him to Original Gino’s East, 162 E. Superior in Chicago, to serve pizza to fans sometime between 3 and 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday’s docket: Dallas, St. Louis, Detroit and Toronto.
In person, Rock appears far younger than the 50 he’ll turn in February: “It’s a rich 50,” he says. “Rich 50 is about 35. Money’s the best lotion in the world.” Over tea recently, he was as animated and forthcoming as usual:
Q. Do you feel as though you’ve finally cracked this nut, fitting yourself into your own movie?
A. I’ve got to do it again, but it feels like when I did my big “Bring the Pain” special for HBO. You’ve got to learn from your failures. You’ve got to really, really take them in. You can’t shrug them off. You can’t blame them on anyone else. You can’t go, “Oh, that day it snowed!”
Q. Did doing the Broadway play “M——- With the Hat,” which you’ve said was the most fun you ever had in show business, help lead to “Top Five”?
A. It just made me write characters. I look at the other movies I made, it wasn’t even like I was making movies. I was making posters. Like: Black guy runs for president — poster! Some of them worked, some of them didn’t, but Andre Allen is a real guy, not like a guy just to service this movie. Even something like “I Think I Love My Wife,” he was the husband representative.
Q. It must have changed you as a performer, too, being accustomed to looking out at the audience.
A. Before we went out every night, Bobby [Cannavale] would lead and go, “Four walls. It’s just us. Four walls. They’re not there. Four walls.” I realized in my acting, in all the movies, I was always playing the crowd. Even in a freaking movie, I’m kind of playing the crowd. Just the phrase “four walls.” I say it all the time. I said it while I was making “Top Five.” I’m really acting with somebody as opposed to Bob Hope-ing it.
Q. You seem to be a student of stand-ups who have succeeded in other mediums, “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Woody Allen films and Adam Sandler movies.
A. I definitely watched all of those things before making this movie. I thought it was interesting that no one had made a movie like “Curb.” I love “Stardust Memories.” Love it, love it, love it. In a weird way, this movie is a combination of “Stardust Memories” and one of those [Richard] Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke walking around movies.
Q. You’ve said “Top Five” is partially about “black fame.”
A. The black performer has a responsibility to the community that frankly white performers don’t have. They just get to be actors and writers and whatever. They get to pretty much do whatever they want. Hey, I love “Dumb Dumber.” I love both of them. You can’t be black and do the same thing. “I can’t believe you’re talking out of your ass! You’re setting us back!” Even the concept of role model. You never hear white people are good role models. Never. The term role model is racist because it implies that my good behavior is not natural, that I am behaving just to help out my people. I don’t hit my wife because that’s not something I do, not because I’m trying to help the race.
Q. Do you think those different standards have also applied to President Obama?
A. Michael Jordan was drafted third. The Houston Rockets drafted Hakeen Olajuwon. He’s a hall of famer! They’re fine. They’re happy. Yes, so Obama’s not Jordan. Obama’s Olajuwon. Won the championship! We wanted Muhammad Ali, we got Sugar Ray Leonard. Sugar Ray Leonard’s f—— good!