The Reeler


March 16, 2007

I Think I Love My Wife

Rock's mainstream stab at depicting affluent black life suffers from a split-personality plot

Having apparently decided that Head Of State's relative lack of success at the box office indicated that his stand-up routine didn't translate well into narrative, Chris Rock turns his second directorial effort, I Think I Love My Wife, into an awkward mash-up: part racial diatribe, part treatise on the inherent shakiness of marriage. The film is technically incompetent (eye-line matches are off, the alleged comic highlights are slackly edited, etc.), but the sense of effort during the racial bits keeps it moving forward.

Richard Cooper (Rock) is a more or less happy family man, sexlessly married to Brenda (Gina Torres) and resigned to a life of investment banking career satisfaction and personal boredom. The appearance of Nikki True (Kerry Washington), a friend's ex-girlfriend from Richard’s premarital days, shakes things up; though she says she just needs a letter of recommendation, she keeps showing up at his office, smoking menthols and annoying the secretaries. Everyone but Richard sees him as heading for infidelity and trouble, but Richard just wants relief from his self-effacing daily routine. Inevitably, Richard has a decision to make between the slow-burning rewards of family life and the promise Nikki offers of a return to youth.

The infidelity plot strand (based on Eric Rohmer's Chloe In The Afternoon) ends up as a wash; Richard is asked to choose between the castrating harpy and the gold-digging one. It doesn't help that Brenda is a psychological blank, a curiosity of the male narrative POV: Her decision to stop sleeping with her husband is as arbitrary as her choice to start sleeping with him again, and so Richard "saves" the marriage without actually making any sacrifices or changes. Nikki is a slightly more intriguing mixture of gold-digging pragmatist and aging party girl aware of her diminishing worth as a sexual commodity, but at the end of the day she's just Richard's foil. Though Steve Buscemi (commanding a surprising amount of boardroom gravitas as Richard's upper-echelon colleague) manages a decent portrait of the kind of guy who happily cheats on his wife of 17 years and considers himself well off, Rock has nothing of substance to say about marriage.

The racial component of the movie -- a story about antsy buppies who want to raise their kids black but successful -- is, predictably, a lot more interesting. Around the house, Richard and Brenda discuss the racial make-up of their kids’ play-dates, spelling out "B-L-A-C-K" and "W-H-I-T-E" so that their kids won't catch on. Dinners with fellow married black couples, according to Rock, can have only three topics after parenthood: complaining about rap music; wondering why blacks can be as successful as Jews; and Michael Jackson. Nikki accuses Richard of having "old nigga ears," swapping iPods so he can learn to appreciate white rock music alongside Luther Vandross et al.

I Think I Love My Wife engagement with racial issues is plausible and absorbing, outweighing its technical problems; sadly, the unfortunate “real” plot of the movie keeps popping up to hector us about marriage and desire. If nothing else, I Think I Love My Wife reminds us that film still has a long way to go in representing the strata of social and economic realities of minority life; affluent black life has been a sitcom staple since Bill Cosby decided he wanted to be a role model, but it’s still a rarity in film. Perhaps now that Rock's given it a mainstream stab, more talented people will take up the challenge and actually make art.

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