By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 15, 2014 at 5:36 AM

On the stage, Chris Rock is one of the modern legends of comedy; on the big screen, he’s just a mere mortal. His star vehicles, like "Down to Earth," provided only mild laughs at best, and things did not improve all that much when he stepped behind the camera for the tepidly received "Head of State" and "I Think I Love My Wife." And the less said about his brief appearances in the "Grown Ups" films, the better.

Fans have been routinely left waiting for a Chris Rock movie that truly plays up to the standard of Chris Rock, one that features the personable ease, the loud and incisive honesty and, of course, the laughs on display during the comedian’s stand up shows (or even in his recent spat of pre-release interviews and articles focused on Hollywood and race). Luckily, the wait is over with the arrival of "Top Five," a loose-limbed comedy that feels like a movie worthy of its star – in both its voice and its significant supply of hearty chuckles.

Rock plays Andre Allen, a one-time comedy superstar fallen on difficult times. His new vanity project – a misguided drama about a massive slave revolt in Haiti – is garnering mixed feedback at best. The pull quote on the poster amusingly raves that it’s "interesting," and Allen’s rebel leader laughably looks more like a guy who’ll breakdown out of terror rather than a be brave hero.  

Critics are left unmoved, while fans would all rather Allen went back to his creatively deprived comedy days starring as an extremely fake, catchphrase-spouting and shotgun-wielding police bear named Hammy. Ever since sobering up, however, the former star has no interest in being funny – much less a talking bear. Nowadays, the best thing Allen has going for him is a big showy reality TV wedding to a Bravo-branded Real Housewife (Gabrielle Union), constantly swarmed by cameras.

With the new movie and the big wedding coming up, Allen gets saddled with an intrepid, eager reporter (a winning Rosario Dawson) working on a piece for the New York Times. He bristles at first about the Times wanting an interview – the scars from some old brutal pans from the paper’s face-less critic still haven’t healed – but eventually the two warm up to each other, hanging out around the city with Allen’s family, swapping stories about their lowest lows and current relationships and discussing hard truths.

The plot of "Top Five" is little to write home about, loosely assembled and taking a contrived late rom-com turn (involving a pretty glaring misrepresentation of criticism, an oddly reoccurring theme in 2014) in the final act.

The story mainly serves as a vehicle for Rock and his voice, and as such, he’s rarely been on the big screen before where his brash sense of humor seemed so relaxed and easy. Most of Rock’s previous films left him stiff and watered down his comedy and ideas for easy mass consumption. "Top Five," on the other hand, plays like an unfiltered IV line hooked directly into the writer-director’s comedic and cultural mind. And unsurprisingly, that’s much better than the diluted material of yesteryears.

Rock’s script peppers in plenty of funny jokes and cameos (Kevin Hart, appearing in I believe his 18th movie this year with 18 more coming in 2015, gets in a couple of strong minutes) along with a lot of entertainingly candid and honest conversations. The opening dialogue between Dawson and Rock is a chat about how society has changed – or not changed – in terms of race. The state of black pop culture is discussed, asking what Tupac would be doing if he was alive. The options land somewhere between a political leader or playing the abusive boyfriend in a Tyler Perry movie, a hilarious – and somewhat sad – observation.

Celebrity is the big topic on Rock’s mind in "Top Five," battling between being authentic to oneself and being authentic to the audience and the general stresses of stardom: the press bombardment, the constant pressure to deliver and the extra caution (after a fender bender, Rock and Dawson leave the driver behind because a little ding becomes something more when a celebrity is involved).

All of these things are escalated when stuck being the funny guy trying to kick a drinking habit. "Everybody’s funnier when they’re drunk," notes Allen’s bodyguard (J.B. Smoove), a thesis Allen desperately doesn’t want to test – for better or worse. He may be scared to check back into comedy, but drama doesn't seem to fit either. In typical Rock fashion, he loudly stares these sometimes uncomfortable truths in the face with the right combo of honesty and humor

Though overlaps can be found (Rock's "I Think I Love My Wife" – an ambitious blend of his comedy style and Eric Rohmer's arthouse marital drama "Chloe in the Afternoon" – was crushed at the 2007 box office by two Tyler Perry films) and its insights and idea are certainly pulled straight from Rock's mind, "Top Five" isn’t technically autobiographical. Considering the realness of the script and the performances – especially Rock, who’s never been this comfortable on screen – it feels that way.

Of course, these ideas and conversations are surrounded by tons of jokes, a majority of which hit. The throwaway lines and cultural observations are funny, and two stand-up style stories – one about an incident with spicy tampon, another featuring Cedric the Entertainer ruining a perfectly pleasant threesome in the most terrifying way possible – are ideally told laugh riots (the latter featuring some great goofy faces from Rock that steal the scene). Sure, some of the jokes aim low – often misogynistically so – but they still overwhelmingly hit the mark.

The movie’s at its funniest and most welcoming, however, when Allen and a bunch of old friends and family (Tracy Morgan, Jay Pharoah, Leslie Jones and more make appearances) just relax, throw around jokes and loudly compare their lists of favorite rappers "High Fidelity" style. Moments like those have soul and sharp punchlines in spades. Comparing 2014 artists-in-crisis movies, if "Birdman" wants to impress you, "Top Five" just wants to hang with you. Once again, it just feels fun, lively and natural, something missing from most of Rock’s feature film work and something happily on full display here.

Also on full display in "Top Five": Jerry Seinfeld making it rain in a strip club. And a movie that features that image, amongst many other hilarious moments, just simply cannot go unappreciated. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.