Chris Rock's "I Think I Love My Wife" is based on the French movie "Chloe in the Afternoon" in the same way Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" is based on "Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie. It's a lightweight adaptation with much broader strokes, but you can't deny the infectious appeal of its main hook.
Rock is arguably the premiere social-observation comic of his generation. His stand-up routines are infused with thought-provoking commentaries and keen insights into racial politics, all delivered in a near-scream that makes everything he says funnier by half.
His movie appearances, though, have been mostly dreadful, e.g., "Sgt. Bilko," "Lethal Weapon 4," "Pootie Tang," "Osmosis Jones," "Bad Company" and the Rock-directed "Head of State," a depressingly clunky remake of the "Here Comes Mr. Jordan"/"Heaven Can Wait" story. (Reading that list, don't you get the feeling you're standing in line at Walgreens, looking down at the bargain DVD bin?)
As the co-writer, director and star of this uneven but witty domestic comedy, Rock finally provides hope he will develop into a genuine force on the big screen. The script, co-written with the comedian Louis C.K., is sharp and quick, and Rock's direction is sure-handed and occasionally inspired. He gives us a workday New York that feels real.
As for Rock's performance, it's probably the closest he's come to playing a believable, three-dimensional human being with some of the traits of the real Chris Rock -- and that's a very likable, very funny guy.
Rock plays Richard, a medium-successful Manhattan banker who has a beautiful wife Brenda (Gina Torres) and two perfect children. His life is set if not in stone in Play-Doh, from his morning wakeup rituals to his workday routine to his return home, where he plays with the kids, enjoys dinner with the family -- and is rebuffed in bed by his wife, who would have to warm up to be labeled frigid. As Richard tells us in voice-over, he's bored out of his &#@!$ mind. (Good for Rock for employing the f-word in that admission -- and for using enough frank language to earn the film an "R" rating. We already have enough safe PG-13 romantic comedies out there; it's refreshing to see one with a little more edge.)
Enter the increasingly sexy Kerry Washington as Nikki, who shows up at Richard's office one day smoking a cigarette like an actress who has just learned to smoke for a movie role. (She smokes throughout the movie and I'm not sure why, other than to make us think, "I wish she would stop smoking in places where they don't allow smoking anymore.")
Nikki dated Richard's best friend when they were all young and crazy, and we're led to believe they're all about the same age, and that's kinda funny in a breaking-the-fourth wall kind of way because Kerry Washington is not yet 30 and Chris Rock is over 40, but such is Hollywood.
Nikki always dresses like she's on her way to a club or a Maxim photo shoot, and she prowls around Richard's office, touching the family pics, caressing the knickknacks and commenting on his boring life, like a panther on the prowl. It's an odd, extremely public, one-sided courtship, at least at first. Nikki clearly wants to bed Richard, and Richard keeps telling himself and his best friend that he and Nikki are just pals. (Richard's best friend, a married man who is a serial adulterer yet cautions Richard about screwing up his life with an affair, is played by Steve Buscemi, who is about the 175th actor you'd think of for a role like that. Yet Buscemi turns in fine work, proving he can do more than play guys who have to report to their parole officer every Thursday.)
We spend a long time -- maybe too long -- on the dance between Richard and Nikki, wondering if Richard will finally succumb to temptation and peel Nikki's clothes off. He's already playing the part of the put-upon boyfriend. He shows up at a club and waits for hours, only to find out Nikki has jetted off to
Miami, and he goes to Washington, D.C., with Nikki to help her retrieve things from a former lover's house. It's a strange sort of semi-affair, yet Nikki is beautiful enough and dangerous enough and vulnerable enough to make us understand why Richard would follow her around like a puppy.
At first, the constant voice-over narration is a distraction, but in some scenes, hearing what goes on inside Richard's head is a ticket to some painfully funny moments. He captures the yearnings and the resentments of the married man who sees beautiful women every day, taunting him with their newness and their loveliness.
This is also that rare film that provides a glimpse into the life of an upwardly mobile African-American family. They want their children to avoid all the ghetto stereotypes, but there's frank talk about wanting the kids to have at least as many black friends as white friends.
All good stuff. Rock delivers some laugh-out-loud lines, Washington is sexy and dangerous, Torres makes her character something more than a frigid harpy, and the workplace scenes are well-played.
But then there's the weirdness. At least three scenes seem as if they're from a different movie. There's a shocking burst of violence in which a main character gets pummeled and shots are fired; a slapstick piece about a Viagra mishap that's crass and obvious and unfunny, and a moment-of-truth confrontation between Richard and Brenda that seems inspired by "Magnolia," of all movies. Extra points to Rock for taking chances -- but in all three cases, the payoff isn't there.
At its worst, "I Think I Love My Wife" is an uneven comedy with an identity crisis. At its best, it's reminiscent of vintage Woody Allen, and it provides hope that Chris Rock the movie guy will one day be as entertaining as Chris Rock the comic.