When he’s behind a microphone, Chris Rock is one of our greatest treasures. Rock’s HBO specials like Bring the Pain, Bigger and Blacker, and Never Scared are masterpieces of standup comedy. Those specials average sixty eight minutes in length, yet yield ten times as many laughs as even the best film comedies. Unfortunately Rock’s acting career hasn’t been as consistent as his stand-up career. He’s managed to be a decent supporting actor in other people’s movies, but he hasn’t really been able to lead a feature film. Early in 2007 Rock released I Think I Love My Wife, a film which looked like it could break that trend. It was an adult targeted film with a mature sounding storyline. Additionally it sported an R-Rating, it seemed studios were finally willing to give the guy a chance to make a movie without censoring himself.
The film focuses on Richard Cooper (Chris Rock), a stock trader on Wall Street who’s happily married to with two kids. Despite his seemingly ideal life, Cooper finds himself bored with his wife Brenda (Gina Torres). The marriage has descended into repetition and tedium and the couple’s sex life has become non-existent. Cooper’s frustration is at the tipping point when Nikki Tru (Kerry Washington), and old friend, surprises him at his office having moved to the city and needing a job reference. Cooper does not start sleeping with Nikki, but he does become attracted to her and begins going on what could be called dates with her. Cooper’s work colleague George (Steve Buscemi) warns him that he’s too emotional to juggle both Nikki and his wife; George is right too, the “affair” causes an identity crisis of sorts for Cooper.
I Think I Love My Wife, a remake of the 1972 French art film Love in the Afternoon, is an attempt at smart Woody Allen style, upper class comedy. Rock directed the film and wrote it with fellow stand-up Louis C.K. Both of the writers have discussed the pitfalls of marriage in their stand-up careers, and the film is full of comic observations about the institution. The boredom of marriage is not an original topic, sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond have discussed the topic ad nausea, however there does prove to be enough strength in the subject matter to support another movie.
As a straight up comedy the film is moderately successful. There are funny moments throughout, although most of the best laughs are frontloaded at the beginning, as the film focuses more on the romantic elements in the third act, with the exception of one very unfunny and misguided trip into broad, gross-out humor toward the end. In many ways the film holds back from being a laugh riot in order to focus on the Woody Allen style romance storyline.
The romantic storyline is hardly perfect. The film is never quite sure what to make of the Nikki character: is she just a temptress? Or is she just as confused as Cooper? The movie never seems to decide. The movie is told through voice over by Cooper, a tactic that many critics jump on. The V.O. here is a bit of a crutch here, but frankly unnecessary V.O. has never been the pet peeve for me that it is for many; it gets the story across and helps out a few jokes, debating about it seems petty. The movie can also become a little repetitive with Cooper constantly debating with himself about his eventual decision; he seems to go on one or two too many outings with Nikki that end the same way.
The acting in the movie is pretty good all around. Kerry Washington is great on screen, she has a seductive quality that jumps off the screen, we can understand what it is about this woman that has Cooper considering infidelity against all logic. Gina Torres is also good, although she doesn’t have as much screen time as one would expect considering her character’s place in the title. Bushemi’s small but interesting role is also well acted, this performance is particularly interesting because Buscemi seems to have ditched his worn out weirdo-shtick. It is interesting seeing this guy act like a normal person for once. As for Rock himself, he’s no great leading man, but he is improving. This is definitely the best work he’s done, but that’s not really saying too much.
The real problem here isn’t Chris Rock the actor, it’s Chris Rock the director. His work here is good, but in the hands of a more experienced filmmaker it could have been great. Still one must give Rock a lot of credit for trying. Rock’s stand up colleague, Eddie Murphy, has been getting lower and lower brow, Chris Rock has been getting higher and higher brow. While I shudder thinking about what new low Murphy will hit after Norbit (which I admittedly haven’t seen, but am willing to believe what I’ve heard), I’m very interested to see where Rock will be doing next.
*** out of four