It’s amazing, and more than a little weird, how many stand-up comedians are truly awful actors. Standing in front of a defiant crowd and making them laugh for 45 minutes takes no small amount of skill, as well as the adoption and amplification of a particular persona: Every comedian is a slightly more amplified version of themselves on stage, which makes for an engaging live performance. (For instance, Jerry Seinfeld’s easygoing whine is miles away from the measured tone of his regular speech, which is half an octave lower.) Unfortunately, acting to the back of the theater looks terrible on film, all cloying and amateurish and seemingly oblivious to the fact that film is medium capable of capturing the beautiful subtleties in an actor’s face or voice. This is why Robin Williams remains popular in live performances and also why Mrs. Doubtfire is an awful, awful movie. The latest example of comedian as emotional blunt object comes by way of Chris Rock, a gifted stand-up performer who hacks his way through I Think I Love My Wife like he’s going to get a prize for acting like he’s acting. Further, having writer-director Rock reinterpret the French New Wave is like having, well, Louis C.K. reinterpret the French New Wave. Rock and Louis C.K. have collaborated to take whatever joy or grace existed in Eric Rohmer’s Love in the Afternoon and suck the life right out of it with the reimagined, repurposed, regurgitated mess that is I Think I Love My Wife, a crushingly dull film that offers drama without conflict and comedy without humor. But the biggest tragedy here is that the script is loaded with potential growth and skill and what could have been a fantastic story about a man coming to grips with his waning youth and the ways that his family is redefining his life.
As Richard Cooper, Rock kicks the whole thing off with his voice-over narration, which has all the character of someone doing a bad Chris Rock impression, while he lays out his life for the camera: work, family, sleep. Repeat. Richard’s wife, Brenda (Gina Torres), is a beautiful, caring mother to their two small children, Kelly (Milan Howard) and Brian (some baby). Richard loves Brenda and their cozy house in the Westchester suburbs, but they’ve been married for seven years and haven’t had sex in a while, which is pissing Richard off something fierce. It’s no surprise that Rock and Louis C.K. place sex as the be-all, end-all of Richard’s life, especially Louis C.K.; this, after all, is the guy who starred in an HBO sitcom about a harried husband who would hide in the kitchen closet to masturbate when he wanted to get away from the pressures of his life, and that kind of emotional retardation doesn’t exactly lend itself to nuanced screenwriting. There are no real reasons for Richard and Brenda’s sudden slow-down in lovemaking, and no further indications of other problems they might be having or may have battled in the past. Richard just gets fed up and becomes engrossed in his fantasy world, which involves (among other things) wandering around Saks during his lunch break just to stare at women. Now, it’s understandable that Richard’s got a roving eye; a man will stare at any crotch placed in front of him, apparently. But it’s one thing for a character to scope strangers on a train, and another for him to delay his lunch break till 2 p.m. just so he can catch hot single women shopping. That’s … creepy.
Richard works at a generic investment banking firm in Manhattan, where one day he gets a visit from Nikki Tru (Kerry Washington), the stripperishly named ex-girlfriend of one of Richard’s old buddies, and the kind of woman that looks like trouble a mile off. She needs a recommendation for a job, and she takes the opportunity to flirt with Richard and take him to lunch and basically plant all kinds of dangerous seeds in his mind. Soon enough, Richard becomes involved in an emotionally hazardous friendship with Nikki, having lunch with her almost every afternoon. The main section of the film unspools as Richard finds himself increasingly drawn into Nikki’s wild life, like when he winds up taking the shuttle flight to Washington, D.C., to help her clean out her old apartment, only to run into her psychotic ex-boyfriend and get pummeled. The scene isn’t played for laughs, but there aren’t any dramatic consequences, either: Richard simply gets beat up, then escapes as cops show up and cuff the boyfriend. One night a few weeks later, Richard actually picks a fight with Brenda just so he can get out of the house to meet Nikki Tru at a club, where of course she never shows. Richard, tired of waiting on her, gets blazed with a couple of sales girls who recognized him from Saks and dances to “Table Dance,” a curiously meta moment that almost made my head explode. I would’ve welcomed the relief.
Rock’s acting is atrocious, plain and simple, with every movement and word forecasting his clear discomfort with playing pretend for the cameras. Unable to unleash the hostile persona that makes his stand-up appearances so riveting, his voice is softened out of all confidence as he minces about and rolls his eyes and acts put-upon. It’s a painful performance to watch, just like it’s painful to see Steve Buscemi and Edward Herrmann wasted in supporting roles, as Richard’s coworker and boss, that go nowhere and offer — surprise — no dramatic element to the story. Will Richard land the big account? Will his relationship with his colleagues suffer because of his attachment to Nikki? It’s never answered. Washington is physically alluring but isn’t given much to do besides pout at Richard and gradually seduce him. There’s no motive for what she does, which is in line with a lot of Rock’s comedy: Women will screw you over, and don’t need much of a reason. Torres is a center of warmth and light in the family scenes, but again, the tacked-together screenplay doesn’t provide her with any depth or humanity, or explain why Brenda’s starting to drift from Richard.
That’s the film’s larger problem: None of the scenes actually relate to each other. They involve the same characters, and loosely revolve around the same few themes, but the questions necessary to animate the subtext of a good film — Why are these people interacting? What’s the desired result? — go unanswered. Rock’s directorial skills are astoundingly haphazard, and he’s too busy working bits from his act into the dialogue to give any thought to the emotional flow of the story he’s trying to tell. Most films succeed by applying their own internal logic to a story, but there flat-out isn’t any in I Think I Love My Wife: From the paper-thin depictions of the loving Brenda and the whore Nikki, to Richard’s unexplained aimlessness, to the hints of subplots that are never explored, the film is a phony exercise in storytelling masquerading as a comedy. I didn’t laugh once.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.I Think I Hate This Movie
Film | March 16, 2007 | Comments ()