By R. Emmet Sweeney
[Photo: “I Think I Love My Wife,” Fox Searchlight, 2007]
Chris Rock and Eric Rohmer are two artists whose names aren’t likely
to appear in the same sentence, or even the same library. But with
nary a warning (or much of an ad campaign), here comes the Rock-directed “I Think I Love My Wife,” a remarkably faithful adaptation of Rohmer’s 1972 “Love
in the Afternoon” (released in the US as “Chloe in the Afternoon”). Fans of both may cringe, expecting another comic’s craven attempt at an Oscar grab, or a Hollywood dumbing down of a legendary auteur’s masterpiece. That
Rock avoids both of these pitfalls is nothing short of miraculous he approaches the original material with respect and retains its ambiguities while recasting it entirely in his own vulgar (and hilarious) idiom.
“Love in the Afternoon” was the final film of Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” cycle, which began in 1962 with the breezy wandering eye tale “The Bakery
Girl of Monceau.” The series is made up of these ogling eyes and the decisive moments when the gap between gaze and flesh could easily be closed. The films are dazzlingly verbal and reassuringly concrete, as each Rohmer protagonist (usually in voice-over) wrestles with the practical consequences of each coupling, while the rich cinematography (the last four by the great Néstor Almendros) traces luminous hands on backs and feet in sand.
The plot of “I Think…” (and “Love”) is simple: Richard (Chris Rock), a
white-collar businessman, grows bored of the regularity of
middle-class life and begins fantasizing about liaisons with random
women he sees on the street. Then an old crush from his school days,
Nikki (Kerry Washington), shows up at his office looking for help with
a new job and they begin a slow flirtation stoked by regular lunches
that the man keeps from his wife, Brenda. Eventually he has to come to
a decision of whether to engage in an affair or return to his wife.
Chris Rock’s script with long-time collaborator Louis C.K (creator of
the underrated HBO show “Lucky Louie”) remains scrupulously close to the
original, retaining the same narrative structure, use of voice-over, and unblinking view of male lust and the apathy instilled by the routines of marriage. What makes the film more than merely a respectful imitation is how much Rock invests of his own personality and obsessions.
The largest departure from Rohmer’s film is its consideration of race,
which informs every frame. In one of the introductory scenes, Richard
walks to work, saying hi to the only other black employees at his investment banking firm two custodians he meets on the way to an
elevator. An even more revealing detail occurs off-handedly; when
Richard asks Brenda whether any black children will be at their kids’
play date (they live in a white suburb), he spells out B-L-A-C-K so
the child won’t hear. This is a glimpse of a black middle-class that’s rarely seen on-screen, one that balances acceptance into the white business world with hopes of maintaining ties to the black culture they’re separated from. In Rock’s film, Richard is an outsider in both worlds. Rock gently satirizes Richard’s disconnect from mainstream black culture at a dinner party, as Richard’s friends spout rote criticisms of hip-hop culture and negatively compare black youth to
Jewish youth (do you think Spielberg got expensive rims as a kid?). This isn’t to say the film abandons Rock’s acerbically juvenile wit there are reams of gut shot vulgarities that lay bare what Rohmer more artfully insinuates. The one truly comic part of Rohmer’s film is a fantasy the lead indulges in, where he possesses a magical pendant that annihilates women’s free will and a montage follows of him seducing ladies on the street. Rock reprises this daydream, discarding the pendant, and pitches it at a baser level the id gone wild (and possibly drunk). Instead of asking women to come home with
him, he asks if he can bite their ass and fuck on the spot, screeched
in that child-like way of his, the innocent glee spilling out of the frame. It’s a case of different sensibilities but both reflecting their own bemused truth.
As impressive as Rock’s accomplishment is (did I mention the Viagara joke to end all Viagara jokes? Well, it’s in there), he still doesn’t compare to Rohmer as a director of gestures (nor does he have Almendros to spruce up his rather drab looking images). The decisive moment in both films occurs with a subtle movement and a glance in the mirror that triggers both leads to make up their minds about their futures. In “Love” this occurs organically as a part of the action, its impact generated by the unexpected resonance such a small motion can have. In “I Think…” the action is slowed down as the viewers’ attention
is forcefully focused on to it. This excessive underlining robs the scene of its force, and turns into a cliché. It’s the only moment in Rock’s film that does a disservice to Rohmer.
Where Rock may have exceeded his model is in the ending, justly
celebrated in the original, but here it’s turned into a euphoric comic
set-piece at turns uproarious and deeply moving, where Richard’s
nostalgia for the slow jams of Peabo Bryson and Gerald Levert unveil
each lovers’ banal insecurities and most basic desires. It’s the
bravest and most idiosyncratic ending to an American film that I can
recall, and by itself could make “I Think I Love My Wife” one of the
must-see films of the year.