“Don’t ask me about film stock or lenses,” Chris Rock says. As a filmmaker, Rock knows his limitations–he’s just finished only his third movie–but still, he should be more confident. That film, Top Five–written, directed by and starring Rock and bankrolled by producers Scott Rudin and Barry Diller–premiered to rave reviews at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Distribution rights to the film sold for $12.5 million, the biggest deal of the festival. An uproariously funny satire of the Hollywood hype machine inspired by Rock’s own experiences and featuring an all-star cast of comedians, Top Five looks poised for success when it lands in theaters Dec. 12.
Perhaps Rock, 49, has learned to temper his expectations after a spotty film career. Seated in a booth at the Comedy Cellar, a Greenwich Village stand-up club, Rock clearly hopes Top Five is the film that has eluded him so far in his varied career as a comic and an actor. “I’ve made a lot of movies, but not my signature movie–something that I felt was to the level of my stand-up,” he says. Writing it by himself helped. “I always wrote with other people,” he says. “When you write with people, you end up with a consensus. When you write by yourself, you have a vision.”
Top Five is indeed elevated by the same freewheeling, improvisational style that’s made Rock a comedy legend. The film follows a day in the life of Andre Allen, a comedic actor whose movies have never lived up to the promise of his stand-up, as he prepares for the release of Uprize, a self-serious drama about the Haitian slave rebellion. But his bid to be taken seriously is undermined by a checkered past–tabloid-grabbing antics and a history of substance abuse–and his fiancée Erica (Gabrielle Union), a vain reality star who’s trying to extend her 15 minutes in the spotlight. When Andre meets Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter who’s profiling him, she hits hard with questions about his professional and personal choices. The humor is farcical, but the tone is self-reflective–Rock turning the camera on his own varied career.
Rock began thinking about Top Five while making his Broadway debut in 2011’s The Motherf-cker With the Hat. The warm critical reception to that play, he says, made him rethink his whole film career: “Like, ‘Stop pandering! Stop worrying about this test.’ That’s the thing about movies over everything else–they test. They don’t test plays. No one tests stand-up.”
But making the transition from beloved comic to movie star is a fraught one, as Rock has proved with middling fare like Head of State, his 2003 directorial debut, and the critically derided Grown-Ups films. “He jokes that his previous films were all posters,” Dawson says about the two-dimensional movies that Rock has made in the past.
“There was this fear,” Rock says. “Am I going to be able to express myself properly in this medium?” His solution was to stop writing to please moviegoers. He just tried to be as funny as possible. “Normally when I write, I have a separate stash of jokes just for stand-ups,” he says. “I didn’t separate them this time. I put them into play.”
The result is sharper than he’s ever been on film, with more pathos too. Andre is a recovering alcoholic, and his struggles with sobriety are shot through with earned pain. He can’t fully trust Brown, the kind of journalist who has burned him before, even as he’s tempted to open up to her completely. Andre’s father hustles him for money, but he submits to being manipulated. Even the shallow Erica gets an emotional payoff as she tries to persuade Andre to continue filming her reality show: “I don’t have a talent,” she pleads.
Some of Rock’s best stand-up has been about race in America, and this theme informs Top Five, which features a predominantly nonwhite cast. “It’s really black without talking about race,” Rock says of the film. “It’s black like any James Brown record is black. But everybody loves James Brown. It’s no different than Chinese food. You walk into any Chinese restaurant and there’s nothing American on the menu, but everybody loves it.”
Though Top Five takes repeated potshots at Tyler Perry’s films and Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta–entertainment that targets black viewers more narrowly than this film does–the ribbing is affectionate. “I’m from the no-demographic era, where you’re supposed to make everybody laugh,” Rock says. “Those things probably are just going toward a black audience. But I’ve had fun at Tyler Perry movies. NeNe Leakes is funny. I’m not judging her. I like all that stuff on a level.”
His satire is also impressively spot-on. One gag in Top Five involves a fictional Tyler Perry movie called Boo–a horror-flick take on Perry’s popular Madea character. “Tyler called me and told me he loved the movie,” Rock says. “And Lionsgate wants him to make Boo. I would go see Madea in a haunted house. I’d be like, ‘O.K., this is 12 bucks. How bad can this be?'”
Though Perry isn’t in the film, the cast does include a jaw-dropping list of comedians in parts both big and small–Whoopi Goldberg, Tracy Morgan, Adam Sandler, Cedric the Entertainer, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Pharoah, Kevin Hart, Sherri Shepherd and Leslie Jones all make appearances. For Rock, though, Rosario Dawson was the key to the whole movie.
“She makes it emotional,” Rock says. “I had to beg her to do the movie, and it’s the luckiest thing that happened. She should get a damn producer credit because she made her character so much better than what was on the page.”
He isn’t being self-effacing; Dawson backs him up on that. “I was hesitant,” she says about signing on to the film. “But he gave me a lot of creative license to develop the dramatic stuff, and I trusted him to help me out with the funny.” In particular, shooting one ludicrously vulgar sequence involving hot sauce used during a sex act made her squirm. “He was like, ‘I know you’re panicking, wondering what’s going on with your career and your life choices. I promise you it’s going to be O.K. I’m telling you, it’s funny.'”
Rock is funny, and Top Five should, at the very least, serve to remind audiences of that after a lackluster streak. “I’ve been in movies that made hundreds of millions of dollars that no one has ever called me and offered me a job because I was in,” he says. Rock is looking for a different kind of return now. “I hope that the movie actually is successful,” he says. “But the most important thing is that somebody wants to work with me again. I can make a billion dollars, but if no one wants to hire me, what’s the point?”
This appears in the December 01, 2014 issue of TIME.