- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

NEW YORK

In Chris Rock’s new film, he plays a mustachioed, bespectacled banker. He’s often funny, but just as often serious and self-examining. It’s a realistic film adapted from the 1972 French classic “Chloe in the Afternoon.”

In short, it’s a long way from “Pootie Tang.”

“I Think I Love My Wife,” which opens in theaters Friday, is Mr. Rock’s second time directing. The first: 2003’s “Head of State,” a farce in which an alderman suddenly becomes a presidential candidate.

“If I did ‘Head of State’ tomorrow, it would be more like ‘All the President’s Men,’ ” Mr. Rock says. “It would be that tone, with jokes.”

Finding the right tone in movies has been challenging for the 42-year-old Mr. Rock. Many of his films — from the underrated “Pootie Tang” to the Farrelly brothers’ “Osmosis Jones” — have been absurdist.

“I’m in another place as far as films are concerned,” Mr. Rock, in his trademark emphasis, says of the aesthetic shift. “I wish I had gotten here a while back.”

His brilliant stand-up act — for which he’s won Emmys — has always been grounded firmly in reality. “I Think I Love My Wife” draws from his stand-up material, which has often dealt with relationships and a reluctant acceptance of married life.

“Those are the choices in life: You can be married and bored or single and lonely,” Mr. Rock said in “Never Scared,” his 2004 HBO special. “Ain’t no happiness nowhere.”

In “I Think I Love My Wife,” Mr. Rock plays a married man with children whose fidelity is tested when an attractive old acquaintance (Kerry Washington) begins dropping by his office. There are definite gags (including a heavily advertised one involving Viagra), but much of the basic plot is taken from Eric Rohmer’s movie — one of his six moral tales.

“I know it sounds silly. People are like, ‘Chris Rock and Eric Rohmer?’ But if you study his movies and then you study my stand-up, they kind of go together,” Mr. Rock says. “We immediately said (“Chloe in the Afternoon”) was like a great house with no furniture — no funny furniture, only serious furniture.”

Mr. Rock co-wrote the script with his friend and frequent collaborator, comedian Louis C.K., who has honed an act known for its ruthless honesty about married life. Louis C.K. believes this is a new direction for Mr. Rock.

“People are always expecting big [Adam] Sandler-like comedies out of him,” he says. “They’re barking up the wrong tree. That’s not true to his voice.”

Mr. Rock — who hosted the Oscars two years ago and brought family life to television through the CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” which is based on his childhood — has long spoken of his deep admiration for another Brooklyn stand-up turned filmmaker: Woody Allen. It’s not hard to see many parallels between a typical Woody Allen movie and “I Think I Love My Wife,” a romantic comedy set in New York.

Mr. Rock used Mr. Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” as a reference, but acknowledges his film is “so not on his level.” Of his identification with Mr. Allen, Mr. Rock says: “I’m a nerd. I’m a little guy. … the last guy you’d expect in a romantic movie.”

Of course, Hollywood is often unreceptive to change. Mr. Rock, a “Saturday Night Live” alumnus, says that the film was “definitely hard to get made” and that while most of his movie ideas sell before a script has been finished, “nobody jumped” at this idea.

He maneuvered the complications of international film rights to get approval for the adaptation and wrote the script on spec without a deal in place. Once the screenplay was completed, studios were still unconvinced.

“Guys play characters that won’t grow up and something catastrophic happens and they have to grow up to save the day — that’s pretty much what today’s comedy is about,” Mr. Rock says. “Nobody wants to make movies about grown-ups.”

In the end, Fox Searchlight picked up “I Think I Love My Wife” (made for about $11 million) for distribution. That Mr. Rock’s film landed at a boutique division specializing in independent movies is a barometer of his new direction.

“It’s just part of the business. Whatever you do, if it’s successful, you can do that again,” the actor-comedian says. “Hopefully people will say, ‘Oh, this is what he should have been doing all along.’ Hopefully.”

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