Chris Rock’s Buppie Angst

I Think I Love My Wife should have been funnier.

I Think I Love My Wife. Click image to expand.
Chris Rock and Gina Torres

When Chris Rock decides to direct, co-produce, co-write, and star in a remake of Chloe in the Afternoon, a 1972 Eric Rohmer film about the adulterous temptations of a married man, you know going in that you’re in for something raunchy, explicit, and devoid of the subtlety of the French original. But the most shocking thing about I Think I Love My Wife (Fox Searchlight) isn’t the language, the sex, or the racial humor. It’s the fact that it’s not a funny movie. At all.

I’m still puzzling over the notion that Rock—who just the other night, as a guest on the notoriously self-serious Inside the Actors Studio, was making me laugh about twice per minute—is even capable of making a movie this unfunny. Especially with a script co-written by Louis C.K., whose sadly short-lived HBO sitcom Lucky Louie actually did what this movie only proposes to do: bluntly dissect the preposterous institution of marriage. But then, Lucky Louie had a real female human being in the cast: Louie’s shrewd, foul-mouthed wife, Kim, played by Pamela S. Adlon. I Think I Love My Wife plonks two paper dolls into the “place girl here” slots: Gina Torres as the nice-boring-sexless-schoolteacher wife, and Kerry Washington as a gorgeous tramp who goes by the Prince-worthy name of Nikki Tru.

These two inert cutouts stand around symbolically while Rock’s buppie investment banker Richard Cooper agonizes in perpetual voiceover about the possibility of an afternoon liaison with the tantalizing Nikki. Said possibility presents itself almost daily, as the girl hangs around his office in chicly revealing outfits, taking him out for long lunches and asking for inconvenient and possibly dangerous favors: Could he hop on a plane to help her move out of her gangster ex-boyfriend’s apartment? Could he come to a nightclub and meet her latest crush, a guy known only as Compassion?

Any resemblance to Chloe in the Afternoon ends with this setup: square-bait married dude contemplates nooky with trouble-gal, only to reaffirm his marriage at the last minute (and if you think that constitutes a spoiler, just read the movie’s title). I Think I Love My Wife is a bland, formulaic romantic comedy with really creaky—I mean Vegas-creaky—jokes about frigid wives, crazy nymphos, and, God help us, Viagra, which is the occasion for a cringe-inducing boner gag that, like Nikki herself, shows up uninvited and then far overstays its welcome.

There is at least one moment in the film that gets a legitimate laugh, when Rock does a bit about women who dress too provocatively on the subway platform. This openly nasty rant is funny because it resembles Rock’s stand-up style, which uses his natural sweetness as a foil for the expression of some really hostile and aggressive impulses. During Rock’s best stand-up moments, you go, “Wow, this nice guy thinks like that?” Unfortunately, the rest of I Think I Love My Wife tamps down that aggression just enough to let it leach out in the form of laugh-free misogyny.

Rock is such a gifted comedian that it’s painful to watch him chafe in this physically and emotionally restricted role. He looks uncomfortable in Richard’s conservative suits and ties, and his usually mobile face is oddly stiff and blank. Kerry Washington (Ray, The Last King of Scotland) seems to be having fun vamping as the purring Nikki, but her part is almost nonexistent: Every opportunity to explore what motivates this woman to behave like such a needy, manipulative jerk is thrown away. Steve Buscemi, as Richard’s aggrieved co-worker George, is a trooper as ever—that guy could enliven an eight-hour documentary about sewage—but he’s barely used, while a potentially suspenseful subplot about Nikki’s ex (played by The Wire’selectrifying Michael K. Williams) is inexplicably discarded after one scene.

The one novelty this film brings to the reaffirmin’-my-marriage comedy subgenre is the fact that it concerns black people—black people whose upscale Westchester existence makes them nearly indistinguishable from white protagonists in a similar movie, but black people nonetheless. Rock has a few interesting observations about race that set his characters apart from the usual romantic-comedy suspects: For example, when cataloguing the predictable topics of discussion at an all-black dinner party, Richard lists Michael Jackson and the condemnation of gangsta rap. As part of her haranguing, Richard’s wife gets after him for using the N-word around the kids. But these moments serve as decoration in a movie that has little else on its mind than how fine Nikki looks in her lingerie and high heels. Not that I’m taking Rock to task for failing to take on the whole of American racial politics in a little sex comedy. He doesn’t have to be any blacker or whiter, angrier or nicer, than he already is: I just want him to be funny.