Perhaps only one man could pull off a movie as well-meaningly extraneous as Dave Chappelle's Block Party, in which the shoot-from-the-hip comic throws a star-studded hip-hop/R&B concert in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and buses in folks from his home of Dayton, Ohio, to ensure a robust, racially diverse turnout. It's doubtful much excitement would surround, say, Carlos Mencia's Backyard Barbecue, but Chappelle is one of those miraculous performers who can infuse the most mundane situations with comic dynamite. And people love him for it. That mixture of risk and adulation saves the movie from its aimless patches of which there are many.
Personality aside, it's a glorified HBO special that doesn't have enough funny stuff to qualify as a comedy flick or enough uninterrupted performance footage to pass muster as a concert film. While the impressive bill includes Kanye West, Dead Prez, Common, The Roots, Erykah Badu, Mos Def and a reunited Fugees practically every urban-music titan to emerge in the last decade save South Park's Chef there's no tour de force segment that music-doc devotees will be talking about years down the road. And the entire undertaking seems caught between Chappelle's promises of a history-making event and his contradictory desire to keep its details hush-hush. The result? Attendance that in the daytime segments at least looks almost anemic. (Cutting around the obvious gaps in the crowd is the job of director Michel Gondry, the Eternal Sunshine helmer whose visual wizardry is otherwise absent; for the most part, the low-tech Block Party could have been shot by anybody.)
What keeps it entertaining is Chappelle's rapier wit and God-given talent for impromptu mischief. Whether he's cajoling a middle-aged saleslady to attend a "rap concert" thousands of miles away or engaging in slightly more assertive promotion via bullhorn (a nod to Elwood Blues?), you hang on his every trenchant word. A gifted improviser with an innate dangerous vibe, he can call a white dude a cracker to his face and have the poor sucker begging for more.
The movie's deepest appeal, though, may be to armchair psychologists, who will enjoy hunting for hints of whatever inner torment spurred Chappelle's subsequent, infamous flight from his TV career at the $50 million height of its success. Seated at a piano and explaining the overlap between stand-up comedy and music, the star opines that he excels at neither "but I've managed to talk my way into a fortune." Keep your eyes peeled for Dave Chappelle's Low-Self-Esteem Throwdown, coming soon to a therapist's couch near you.