I Think I Love My Wife has got to be the unlikeliest French New Wave classic ever to be retrofitted by a famous African-American stand-up comedian best known for his stinging social commentary — at least until Dave Chappelle remakes Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless as a hip-hop caper. As generations have before him, Chris Rock responded deeply to the pleasurable intelligence of Chloe in the Afternoon, one of the six self-described ”moral tales” made by the great French master Eric Rohmer — a mature 1972 study of a man, faithful to the wife he loves, whose fidelity is challenged by the reappearance of a sexy, available woman from his past. But as few auteurists might have done, Rock — director as well as co-writer and uneasy hero of his own movie — has taken Rohmer’s marvelously probing, psychologically refined, exquisitely yakky, and deeply French movie and turned it into a coarse-talking, race-conscious, tonally challenged life-crisis comedy.
Now it’s about Rock as a sex-starved daddy named Richard, a prosperous, suited-up banker. Each weekday morning, Richard kisses his beautiful wife and two adorable kids goodbye and departs his handsome suburban house for the commuter train into shining Manhattan, all the while ogling sexy strangers. ”She’s like a painting,” he informs us about one, ”a painting I’d like to mount.” Richard’s lovely, nurturing schoolteacher spouse, Brenda (Gina Torres, an elegant comedian), is perfect in every way but one—she’s uninterested in sex. (”My face hurts” is one of her sitcom excuses.) And eventually Richard, who wants sex with his wife but isn’t inclined to seek it elsewhere, retreats into a kind of defeated fantasy life. As he puts it, in a running interior monologue that has somewhat less panache than that of the conflicted hero of the original, ”I’m bored out of my f—in’ mind.” So far, the guy’s more Everybody Loves Raymond than Masculin-Féminin.
Then one day the porno-provocatively named Nikki Tru (Kerry Washington from Ray, working every come-hither eyelash), former girlfriend of an old buddy, sashays into Richard’s ultra-beige (indeed, ultra-white) corporate world, ostensibly seeking an employment letter of recommendation. Maybe she’s auditioning for a road production of Showgirls? Nikki upsets all that beige in her skimpy, devil-red baby-doll dress, and Richard’s eyes go yowza-wowza. (In truth, Rock looks kind of terrified.) You know Nikki’s up to no good because she smokes, constantly, in forbidden places like offices and restaurants. It’s not long before he and Nikki are meeting on sunny city afternoons and doing — not what you think, since Rohmer’s interest lies not in the Doing It, but in the moral vertigo of teetering on the precipice of Doing It. But the two are certainly doing something. As Richard’s more battle-hardened colleague George (another perfectly pitched supporting turn by Steve Buscemi) puts it: ”She’s f—in’ you — you just don’t know it.” (In a nice shout-out to The King of Comedy, Richard toils at the firm of Pupkin & Langford; in an even nicer shout-out to Rock’s beloved hometown, the movie is shot all around NYC.)
The EW convention of F-bleeping makes discussion cumbersome, because so much of the script (co-written with fellow comic Louis C.K.) is filled with naked, raunchy talk of f—ing and its accoutrements — conversation perfectly tailored to Rock’s stand-up world, but forced and distracting in a movie with such sophisticated aspirations. Actually, some of the movie’s best bits are sharp observational moments perfect for a one-man act on HBO, especially when the star gravitates toward the subject of blackness in a white American world, and even more specifically upper-middle-class blackness in an undisciplined, N-word-using African-American pop-oriented culture. But those aren’t the bits that drive the essentially conservative movie comfortably toward its safe, morally inevitable conclusion.
Rock isn’t yet a natural actor — he uses the same pursed facial expressions to convey lust, fear, guilt, and dismay at being served chicken by his wife one too many times. And in directing his second feature after the equally ragged but more relaxed political comedy Head of State, he can’t yet translate his skills as a brilliant comedian into equally sharp focus; his cinematic skills are only mild. Given his good taste in French art, he might be better off teaming up, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party-style, with a stronger visual interpreter like Michel Gondry. I think I’d love that.