March 15, 2007

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I Think I Love My Wife (R)
Chris Rock is a top notch comic and about a third of the way to being a good filmmaker as he proves once again in I Think I Love My Wife, the tale of a suburban man flirting with an affair.

Oy, Chris Rock, good intentions, somewhat painful execution. Head of State and Down To You, his two most recent previous movies on which he has a writing credit, both had good moments, funny lines, interesting bits. But both were also sort of a mess. Early in I Think I Love My Wife Richard (Rock) and his wife Brenda (Gina Torres) bemoan the lack of black children in their kids’ social circles but spell out “black” and “white” so that their young children won’t know what they’re saying. This tension — between wanting kids who don’t think about race and wanting their kids to have friends that look like them — is an interesting struggle for those of us not in the majority ethnic group. What a fascinating and rarely-discussed subject to show up in a sex dramedy. Sadly it isn’t one that’s really touched on again. Nor is an early-in-the-film observation that Richard is the highest-ranking and possibly only profession-level African American at his film really discussed again. And when temptress Nikki Tru (Kerry Washington) shows up, the few moments of class separation and tension between Richard and Nikki and between Nikki and the women at Richard’s office are promising but fleeting.

Instead, most of our times are spent with the rather sitcomy frustrations of Richard, who doesn’t get much (or possibly any) sex with his otherwise lovely wife Brenda (well, he tells us she’s otherwise lovely but the movie frequently paints her as shrewish and hen-picking). As a result, boobs and bums jump out at him everywhere he goes. He spends his lunch hours wandering department stores looking for an excuse to have a conversation with a well-endowed salesgirl.

Into this tinderbox saunters the matchstick that is Nikki. An old girlfriend of Richard’s buddy, Nikki visits Richard looking for a reference to help her get a job. She’s a rather forward girl, though, so professional help quickly turns into lunch which quickly turns into a conversation about Richard’s marriage and how happy he is (or isn’t). Richard soon finds himself making a regular thing of lunch with Nikki, causing much consternation among the people in the office and giving him guilt pangs about all the thing’s he’s not telling his wife. As time goes by, Richard finds himself drawn closer and closer to the point of no return that would be an actual, physical affair. What will he do? Can he cheat? Can he bear to not cheat? Will he and his wife ever recapture their passion? Or is the price of a steady home life a sex-life awakened only by Viagra?

Mostly, what Rock does is make nervous jokes, the kind that elicit a “ha ha … oy” when you are confronted with them in real life, some of them even reach the level of a “oh, groan,” the kind of thing that seems to have been discarded from an episode of According to Jim. This kind of weak comedy is painful coming from Rock, a razor wit in his live shows and the instigator of the consistently funny sitcom Everybody Hates Chris. Somehow his ability to see complexities, to put layers on a character, to make personalities seem human vanishes when he approaches a feature film. I wonder if this tendency isn’t made even worse here by the presence of co-writer Louis C.K. As a standup comedian, his vitriolic rants about marriage and fatherhood are actually moderately amusing and allow him to both express a kind of to-his-core-annoyance at his family while still being hopelessly in love with them. This is a kind of complexity visible almost nowhere in his woeful HBO sitcom Lucky Louie and seldom visible here. Marriage is difficult and relationships do change overtime. But this movie captures little of the nuance of that. Michael Jackson jokes and copious boobs stand in for subtlety. If only Chris Rock could get out of his own way enough to make the movie he seems to want to make instead of the movie he seems to think he needs to make. C-

Rated R for pervasive language and some sexual content. Directed by Chris Rock and written by Rock and Louis C.K. from the movie Chloe in the Afternoon by Eric Rohmer, I Think I Love My Wife is an hour and 34 minutes long and opens in wide release on March 16. It is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.