The Reeler


March 16, 2007

Of Rock and Rohmer

The actor/director on Chloe, comedy and getting personal in I Think I Love My Wife

City slicker: Chris Rock leaves home in the Eric Rohmer adaptation I Think I Love My Wife (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

Famously, there is no knowing the degree to which Chloe in the Afternoon (L'Amour l'après-midi), the last of director Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales produced between 1963 and 1972, was an approximation of its maker's personal life. Having worked pseudonymously for most of his career as a filmmaker and critic, Rohmer avoids interviews; married for a decade when he released his tale of a bored suburban husband tempted to infidelity by a free-spirited female chum from his youth (notably, a variation on his five previous Moral Tales), the French New Waver's talky character piece affirms a personal style just as unmistakably as it conceals his motivations.

Not so with Chris Rock, whose American updating of Chloe, retitled I Think I Love My Wife, opens today. "I'm a guy," he told The Reeler during a recent interview in New York. "Anybody -- gay, straight, whatever -- you see attractive people everyday." Rock pointed to a woman journalist in the room. "She's cute. You know? You notice them and then you keep on moving. Is it autobiographical? No. But who knows, later on? Who knows if, when Woody did Manhattan, he knew what history was going to present?"

Nice. And made nicer, indeed, by Rock's directing, co-writing (with partner Louis C.K.) and casting of himself as Richard Cooper, an affluent investment banker dwelling in Westchester with his wife Brenda and two young children. (Rock, with initials inverse to those of his character, lives in New Jersey with his wife [of 10 years] and two young children.) Richard commutes to Manhattan each day fantasizing about the women on his train, in the streets, in the stores where he shops during his lunch hour -- pretty much anywhere his wife is not. Conversely, their time spent in marriage counseling is devoted to debating the conditions of their relationship's sexlessness. It's an American convention that hews closely to the narcissistic spirit of Rohmer's protagonist Frédéric, minus the playfulness; the viewer is positioned against Brenda as quickly as possible to make room for the triangle that forms when mini-skirted, chain-smoking seductress Nikki True reenters Richard's life.

But in casting the gorgeous Kerry Washington as the updated manifestation of Chloe, Rock makes a key break from Rohmer, further stacking the deck against Brenda in a way that Chloe (portrayed by French It-girl Zouzou) never did against Frédéric's more beautiful wife Hélène. Wherein Chloe, Rohmer spikes his film with allusions to the childish impulse driving both men and women, I Think I Love My Wife seeks viewers' sympathy for a man whose vacuum of loyalty is as deceptive as it is puerile. Frédéric is just kind of a stupid Frenchman. Richard is an archetypically American asshole.

Such an asshole, in fact, that most of the women who attended my screening of the film simply didn't laugh. I asked Rock if he had heard of or seen similar responses among other audiences. "It varies," he said. "It's like my stand-up, you know? Some jokes you love, some jokes, you're like, 'Fuck him.' I wanted that type of movie experience; I wanted people arguing when it was over. 'He should be with Nikki! 'He should be with his wife!' That's what I was going for in this movie. There are things in it that didn't test well that I just kept in because I thought it was a better movie."

I Think I Love My Wife does have its moments, from transplanting Chloe's outrageous Parisian daydream of seductive invincibility ("May I have your girlfriend?") to Bryant Park ("Let's get to fucking!") to an extended bit of Viagra farce culminating in a showdown with Richard's colleague George (Steve Buscemi) over the politics of amorality. And certainly, in a perfect world, those familiar with Chloe could view Rock's film outside the long shadow thrown by its predecessor. But plunked 20 years into a brilliant career long defined by his (and his audience's) utterly contemporary restlessness, I Think I Love My Wife both symbolizes and subverts its maker's obsession with risk. Its fealty to preexisting narrative defies a horny, inelegant, yet unmistakably authentic fantasia Rock seems have to been dying to get out of his system for a while. Its bourgeoisie self-awareness barely skims the racial dynamic so essential to Rock's most powerful stand-up comedy (Richard and Barbara spell skin colors out in front of their children, lest pejorative ethnic associations scourge their suburban idyll). Its obsession with women -- from bodies to social roles -- teases, then surrenders to an ugly (if honest) objectifying urge.

Clearly, Washington knew this and, in her own wink to Zouzou's more vulnerable origination of the role, punctuates the opportunist Nikki's body language with eye aversions and aggressive cigarette consumption. But her control never wavers, despite the questionability of its source.

"I became aware of how much of a victim she is," Washington told me. "I know, to me, she's kind of the Tasmanian Devil of the movie -- she kind of whirls in and disturbs everything around her and is totally not conscious of her process. At the same time, she really is the victim of a society that tells women that your worth is in your objectification. You don't have to take care of yourself; if you take care of yourself, you will get taken care of. And that's way to be taken care of, is to manipulate people with your sexuality and your looks. I think in a lot of ways she's a victim of that system and just hasn't ever been taught to be self-reliant or educated."

As Rock has said of all his comedy, "I like to find things that aren't funny and make them funny" -- a generalization not too many generations removed from his quip during our interview that "the goal was to make a funny Adrian Lyne movie." Joke taken, but really, that would explain (if not excuse) I Think I Love My Wife's almost predatory inhumanity, as well as compel this viewer to rally for its director's quick rehabilitation. As we relish even Adrian Lyne's worst films and crave Eric Rohmer's imagination, so we need Chris Rock to be funny. Seriously.

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