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‘Top Five’: Smart, savvy comedy from Chris Rock

If you asked five people in your life to list the five best comics of the last 25 years, I’ll bet at least four would mention Chris Rock. I’d say he’s the best.

But unlike other brilliant stand-ups such as Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg and the late Robin Williams, Rock hasn’t reached a similar level with his movies. Some have made money, some have tanked — but Rock hasn’t had a “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” a “Ghost,” a “One Hour Photo.”

With “Top Five,” Rock writes, directs and stars in a seriously funny, semi-autobiographical film that might be the most accomplished work he’s ever done for the big screen. This is a smart, savvy film with sabre-sharp one-liners, a half-dozen terrific supporting turns, one of the best scores of the year, a winning romance and a heartfelt and authentic performance from Rock. And we haven’t even talked about how this film offers up the two most tasteless, ridiculous and somehow semi-believable takes on the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

I pretty much loved this movie.

Rock is clearly going for a Woody Allen vibe with a story set almost entirely in New York, as we follow stand-up sensation turned comedy box-office champ turned aspiring serious actor Andre Allen during one hectic day as he promotes his new movie about a Haitian slave rebellion called “Uprize!” while his reality-star fiancee (Gabrielle Union) plans their wedding in Los Angeles, with the Bravo cameras capturing every moment.

“I don’t feel funny any more,” Andre tells Rosario Dawson’s Chelsea Brown, a New York Times journalist who shadows him throughout the day for a profile. The irony is that “Top Five” is perhaps the funniest movie of the year, whether Andre and Chelsea are verbally fencing, Andre is recounting a hilarious and bawdy escapade back in the day when he was boozing and drugging it up, or Andre is reconnecting with family and friends from the neighborhood. (A pre-accident Tracy Morgan is among the standouts as a couch-dwelling layabout. Cedric the Entertainer is riotously funny as a Houston club promoter. Leslie Jones from “Saturday Night Live” is pure gold in a small role. And Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg and Adam Sandler kill it playing alternate-universe versions of themselves.)

In interview after interview, Andre tells Charlie Rose and various radio hosts and dozens of junket journalists he’s done with the beloved and wildly successful “Hammy the Bear” franchise — in which Andre plays a cop in a full bear suit — and he wants to do movies that make a difference. But from the movie-within-a-movie glimpse we get of “Uprize!,” it looks like a surefire Razzie contender, despite Andre’s tireless efforts to promote it. (He’s up against a Tyler Perry movie on opening weekend — and the jokes about Perry’s films and characters are among the many inside-showbiz gems sprinkled throughout the film.) As Andre’s manager (Kevin Hart) tells him, the reality-show wedding is the best thing he’s got going for him.

Thanks to Rock’s sure-handed direction, his rich screenplay and spot-on editing, “Top Five” zips along at a brisk pace, rarely stumbling as the material goes from hard-R slapstick to bleak corners, as Andre and Chelsea reveal some of their darkest moments with each other. Even Gabrielle Union’s Erica, the reality star who acts like a movie star even though her only talent is flaunting her superficiality before the cameras (hmmmmm), who could easily have become a caricature, has a moment where she actually IS real and we see the sadness of her life.

Rock takes a couple of shortcuts in the name of storytelling. As someone who has promoted dozens of projects, he knows you don’t do junkets on the day a movie opens; you do it well in advance, so the entertainment reporters have time to file their stories. I also didn’t buy one particular story thread involving Chelsea. (No fault of Dawson. As usual, she’s a natural onscreen. It’s fine work and she has a sizzling rapport with Rock.)

Mostly though, “Top Five” rocks. (The title comes from various characters listing their Top Five hip-hop artists, which of course reveals more about the list-maker than the “listees.”) This is one of the most genially vulgar movies I’ve ever seen. Even when the dialogue and the visual humor are hardcore, even when Andre hits rock bottom, there’s a real sense of joy about this film. It’s one of the best times I had at the movies this year.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Paramount Pictures presents a film written and directed by Chris Rock. Running time: 101 minutes. Rated R (for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use). Opens Friday at local theaters.