It’s a grown man’s horror movie.
— Chris Rock, Regis and Kelly (13 March 2007)
Chris Rock’s decision to remake Eric Rohmer’s 1972 comedy, Chloe in the Afternoon, suggests the two films have something in common. They do share some manifest themes, including middle-class/midlife restlessness, men’s self-serving cluelessness, women’s alluring mysteriousness. Like the original, I Think I Love My Wife presents a not-so-happily married man, here Richard (Rock), caught between his glorious wife Brenda (Gina Torres) and luscious obsession-object Nikki Tru (Kerry Washington). Again, the two women are arranged to form a common moral dilemma for the man: will he stray or stay?
Still, the movies aren’t exactly the same, starting with the shift of emphasis in the titles. Rock and longtime cowriter Louis C.K. have refocused the male’s anxiety to suit a U.S. market: Richard worries about his feelings and needs incessantly, especially concerning his “possession,” the wife. That he’s not feeling precisely in control of his property is suggested in the updating of the marriage: this one, unlike Rohmer’s, has produced children, Kelly (Milan Howard) and a prop-baby still in diapers. The kids take up Brenda’s time and energy, and make her extra-intimidating, as she can handle all situations where dad occasionally looks incompetent (he can’t handle the diapering so deftly as mom).
Brenda not only manages the house and the kids’ cultural context (she’s going to join Mocha Moms, she announces, in an effort to provide her children with playmates of color, as they live in white Westchester), but also maintains a regular dinner menu suited to his tastes and looks fantastic at every moment. The camera looks down on them as they lie side by side in bed, untouching. “How can my wife not have sex with me,” he wonders in voiceover, “And then send me out into a world with so many beautiful women? It’s like dropping me into the ocean and asking me not to get wet.” Poor Richard.
To make his situation slightly less pathetic –or maybe it’s more pathetic — I Think I Love My Wife delivers to Chris Rock Fan expectations. Richard marks his blackness by way of frequent n-word jokes and broadly race-based comedy. He also makes clear his own fretful, voracious appetite regarding women: strolling through the park of his imagination, he comes on to every beauty who comes his way: “Would you like to have sex with me?” (“Yes!”) or again, “Can I bite your ass?” (for $1000, anything is possible). The movie is an erratic, noisy, and anxious paean to masculine desire. In a word, it’s all about dick.
This point is made manifest when, in an effort to jumpstart his sexual relationship with Brenda (with whom he has not had sex in months, a condition for which they are seeing a therapist), Richard takes Viagra. He gets it from his compulsively philandering coworker at the bank, George (Steve Buscemi), who has been advising him to drop the so-far-no-sex-flirtation with Nikki and stick with the wife. Following a nice dinner, Richard pops a pill, tucks in the kids, and approaches the bedroom, where he finds Brenda, pajamaed and snoring (at which point “The Look of Love” scritches off the soundtrack). His gigantic erection lasts for more than four hours. Cue ambulance sirens and general chaos, wherein Richard is strapped onto a gurney and a paramedic sticks a needle into his penis.
The sequence provides repeated alternating shots of the huge erection and Richard’s horrified face, all as predictable as the scene where Nikki, dressed in lace lingerie and killer heels, asks him to rub lotion into her perfect back (guess what happens with that lotion bottle). The gag is premised on Rock’s usual business, honed over years of standup, talk-show hosting, and previous movie roles, an often entertaining mix of insecurity and cockiness.
In this version of that routine, Richard imagines freedom from his routine in the form of bad-girl Nikki. Every time she appears on screen, she’s smoking cigarettes, showing cleavage, inviting Richard to rethink his baked-chicken-every-night existence. She invites Richard to partake in her trouble — inspiring gossip at his office, making him miss appointments, convincing him to accompany her to DC, where she needs to collect a favorite sweater from her ex’s apartment. The ex, Teddy (Michael K. Williams), shows up unexpectedly, threatening violence, their scuffle drawing the attention of a pair of cops who proceed to beat Teddy down. Richard and Nikki scamper off, at which point he accuses her of putting him in danger and making him miss yet another crucial appointment. And yet, Richard’s face reveals both relief not to be that stereotypical “black man” and desire for the excitement that comes along with the stereotype.
This tension is I Think I Love My Wife‘s most interesting point. Richard can’t resolve it — he can’t be the action movie tough guy or the self-satisfied buppie. Instead, he remains in flux, not a bad place to be, but apparently nervous-making. He explains himself to himself incessantly, his voiceover framing the film so that neither Nikki nor Brenda has a life beyond his view of himself. He sees them both in terms of what they can offer him, how they make him feel: where Nikki makes the NYC Auto Show fun (they look at Porsches and play video driving games, her faultless body pressed up against his), a second visit to the same show with Brenda includes the kids in a stroller and close study of the minivans.
Though Nikki must remain elusive to be desirable, Brenda must remain available to be frustrating. Richard describes his tedium to himself as the difference between pre-marriage Brenda (“I can’t wait to suck your dick!”) and post-marriage Brenda (“I can’t wait for you to come home and see these drapes!”). Still, in all Richard’s scenarios, women want him: Brenda is ever ready to forgive him whenever the plot calls for it, just as Nikki pursues him incessantly, insisting, despite a series of incidents that suggest otherwise, that they could be “really happy together.” It is, again, all about Richard.