Stand-up comedians have a notoriously difficult time finding suitable vehicles for translating whatever it is that makes them successful on stage into quality movies. Chris Rock has just as poor a track record in film as any comic. It's not for lack of talent: He's his generation's Richard Pryor, if anybody is. So why is it that the man Entertainment Weekly placed at the top of their "Funniest People in America" list in 2004 has never headlined a real box-office smash?
Rock probably need not look any further than his own filmography to lay the blame. But, to his credit, he's taken matters into his own hands. He wrote and directed himself in the forgettable Head of State in 2003, and now he's back again doing triple duty with I Think I Love My Wife.
Rock's movie is based on, of all things, Eric Rohmer's 1972 French art-house hit Chloe in the Afternoon. The remake has Rock as Richard Cooper, one of the few African Americans working for a mid-sized investment firm; he's white collar, the others are service staff. Richard's been married for years to Brenda (Gina Torres), and they have two young kids. Their home is filled with the detritus of everyday suburban parenthood: dinosaurs, dirty laundry, kids' half-finished craft projects, home-improvement shows on the TV. The Coopers' marriage is a sexless one; they talk about it at marriage counseling. In voiceover, Richard says it all: "I'm bored out of my fucking mind."
Into this, an acquaintance from Richard's single life resurfaces: Nikki (Kerry Washington), who's beautiful and impertinent, confronting him with questions about his marriage. She ties up his seven-year-itch brain with her siren song just as she repulses him with obnoxious, damaged-girl games.
Rock's performance is uneven. His narration lacks conviction, and the comedy often seems ripped from his stand-up routine rather than being an organic extension of his character. But he's also convincing acting the square to Washington's vamp tramp. (To achieve the look, Rock has his character wear glasses; it's like his version of Robin Williams' beard.)
Similarly, Rock hits and misses as a screenwriter. Richard's moral uncertainty isn't fully fleshed out -- it's Rohmer in the set-up but not in the details -- and the film lacks narrative focus. But I Think I Love My Wife draws sharp observations of its characters, such as how the Coopers try to raise race-blind children by spelling rather than saying "white" and "black." It's also nice to see a movie where the worn-out "carpe diem" theme is trashed in favor of suggesting that life should be lived knowing it ain't short at all.
For all its flaws, Rock's newest is a big step in the right direction. That it can be termed a "disappointment" rather than just "bad" means there might still be hope for Chris Rock as a movie actor. He's no Pauly Shore, after all.
I Think I Love My Wife
Opening Friday, March 16th