This is not one of those "go run out and see this!" reviews, nor is it a rotten tomatoes attack. The movie in question is a decidedly mixed bag, almost equal parts brilliance and "huh?" so I'm not even suggesting that the damn thing works. No, I blog for you today in defense of a noble and too-often neglected pursuit: risk-taking in the movies.
Consider the odds against I Think I Love My Wife. I wouldn't even bother to try pitching an American remake of Eric Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon in today's L.A., considering that 90% of the executives pitched wouldn't know Rohmer from Homer and that the 10% who did know this cinefile's work would think I was putting them on (in Arthur Penn's Night Moves, the Gene Hackman character says, "I saw a Rohmer film once; it was kind of like watching paint dry").
That even Rohmer's best work (e.g. Summer, Claire's Knee) is antithetical to mainstream moviemaking in its studied avoidance of conventional plot development is one thing. To pitch Chris Rock as the star and auteur at the helm of a Chloe remake is quite another. It almost sounds like a gag from an episode of Entourage ("That studio's so out of the loop, they think they'll make money on Chris Rock in an Eric Rohmer movie!").
But bless the comedian's whacked-out heart, Rock conceived, co-wrote and put together this oddball creation as his new vehicle. You gotta love the guy for sheer gall; he couldn't have come up with a more damned if you do, damned if you don't proposition: people who revere Rohmer's dry-wry romantic dramedies are only going to cry desecration, while people who expect a broad Chris Rock comedy are going to be confused and disappointed.
Predictably, most critics have fallen into either camp, and I've been appalled by some of the vitriolic reactions. Writing in tones ranging from incredulous to contemptuous, the crits generally rake Rock's effort over the coals for not being funny enough, and the subtext of it all reads: what does the man think he's doing?
How about: he's trying something different. And isn't that exactly what, time and time again, all of us ask of our filmmaking peers? Aren't we always complaining that movies are too safe, too formulaic, too much same-old, same-old? Cheez-Louise, let's give Rock his props for thinking outside the box and take a look at the movie not in terms of what we expected it to be, but what it actually is.
What it is, unfortunately, is kind of an endearing sprawling mess; you can feel Rohmer, Rock, and a passel of intriguing ideas fighting it out for focus as the movie unfolds. But it is funny, albeit inconsistently, and it's also surprisingly moving when it gets to its amusingly over-the-top resolution.
Wife contains a number of vintage Rock routines, such as his withering dissection of which four conversations two married African-American couples will always have at dinner (the kids, the Jews, rap music and Michael Jackson), and his suburban wife's wish to find a "Mocha Moms" group to join. The film's undeniably at its best when it's giving Rock room to satirize the contemporary upper middle class African-American culture and the foibles of being black in a predominately white workplace ("I think I know every black person who works at my firm," says Rock as investment banker Richard, who's seen greeting by name a cleaning lady and a maintenance guy -- and then squeamishly backing away from a messenger in the elevator who's listening to rap on his iPod and declaiming obscene lyrics at the top of his lungs).
The movie is weakest, actually, when it's stuck in the worn tracks laid by Rohmer. The story's central gag has Rock being befriended and seduced by the sexy ex of a friend (played by pouty Kerry Washington) but not sleeping with her -- while suffering the consequences of everyone around him assuming that he is. Problem is, sexy as she is, Nikki's character is poorly conceived and executed (as is the character of Richard's wife). She should be a quirky, fun force of nature who turns Richard's world upside down (Melanie Griffith in Something Wild comes to mind); instead, she seems a self-absorbed, mean-spirited neurotic, which makes Richard look dim for being so obsessed, and left me, by the back end of an overlong second act, wanting to yell at the screen, "bone her or bag her, dude!"
The schizophrenic see-sawing of the tone here is prob'ly what's got audiences disgruntled, and the fact that Rock hasn't quite figured out how to integrate his stand-up persona into a fully realized characterization (Richard is alternately Rock-like and a generic working stiff) adds to the general sense of the movie not quite adding up.
Nonetheless, I'd rather watch an intriguing Not Quite that has some real gems in the mix, than a merely serviceable Been There Done That which recycles the usual junk jewelry. For all its faults (Rock clearly does not know how to write women), I Think I Love My Wife presents one of the major comedic talents of our era taking some real chances.
I hope the flack he's getting for being willing to stretch doesn't deter him, because le auteur Rock is bound to get it right before long. What's next, a remake of The Seventh Seal or La Dolce Vita? The mind reels -- and all status quos considered, that's not a bad thing.