Directed by Chris Rock | Written by Rock and Louis C.K.| With Rock, Kerry Washington, Gina Torres, Steve Buscemi, and Edward Herrmann

Last week on The Tavis Smiley Show, Chris Rock was asked about the rubric of “black comedy” in the racial sense and whether it had any validity. “Black comedy is black comedians talking about the black experience,” he said. “But everyone can relate to the black experience.” That spirit of inclusiveness has helped Rock develop a large multiracial audience, just as his hero Richard Pryor did in the 70s. But as Pryor discovered the following decade, when his movie career was peaking, an artist who reaches too hard for the universal can easily lose track of himself.

With I Think I Love My Wife, Rock puts his color-blind ethic to the test, remaking a movie that’s not just white but white, bourgeois, and French: Chloe in the Afternoon (1972), the last of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.” The hero of Rohmer’s film, a handsome, low-key businessman, has begun to feel smothered by his life as a husband and father when into his life walks Chloe, an alluring but unstable friend from his bachelor days who’s looking for a job and possibly a lover. With every broad-minded rationalization he makes to accommodate her, he becomes increasingly corrupted, until he finds himself in her bedroom one day on the verge of committing adultery. As Rock explained to Smiley, he wanted to play a “grown man, with grown-man problems. And nobody was gonna cast me in one of these types of movies! So I had to write one.”

I must confess that when I heard about the project, I secretly hoped it would be a triumph just for the pleasure of watching cinema snobs foam at the mouth. The prospect seemed unlikely but not impossible: some of the sharpest material in Rock’s last concert special, Never Scared, dealt with the eternal conflict between men and women. And his screenwriting partner, fellow stand-up Louis C.K., has made some cutting observations about married life in his coarsely funny HBO series, Lucky Louie. But their crowd-pleasing gags are completely at odds with Rohmer’s cagey moral comedy.

Rohmer was hardly above using a little lightweight shtick himself. One memorable sequence in Chloe, copied verbatim by Rock, is a fantasy in which the hero approaches women on the street and finds them miraculously open to his come-ons. But while Rohmer’s humor tends to spring quite naturally from the character’s desires and disappointments, Rock seems to be recycling bits from Caroline’s Comedy Hour. In Rohmer’s film the husband and wife run into Chloe while shopping; in I Think I Love My Wife Richard (Rock) and his wife, Brenda (Gina Torres), run into the sultry Nikki (Kerry Washington) while shopping for lingerie, so that Brenda’s sensible underwear can be contrasted with Nikki’s erotic panties. In another situation lifted from Rohmer, Richard reluctantly accompanies Nikki as she collects her things from another man’s apartment, but Rock ends the scene wildly in a shoot-out, setting up plot complications that never materialize. In an added episode, Richard takes some Viagra–the banana peel of the 21st century–and winds up in an ambulance with a paramedic plunging a syringe into his dick. Sacre bleu!

These rimshot gags are particularly frustrating because there’s a much more interesting movie lurking around the edges of I Think I Love My Wife. Unlike Rohmer’s hero, whose occupation is nondescript, Richard is an investment banker at a high-powered Manhattan firm and the only African-American in the company’s inner circle. In one of the movie’s more layered gags, Richard is packed into an elevator with his white coworkers when a black deliveryman squeezes on, chanting along to hip-hop on his headphones; the whites all ignore him as he rants about killing crackers, but Richard is terrified of the guy. Rohmer’s hero works in a windowless space and pursues his affair largely unobserved, but Richard works in one of those offices that seem to be all glass, which makes us acutely aware that he’s being watched and judged by his colleagues. Throughout the movie there’s a steady stream of offhand remarks about staying black in a white man’s world; when Nikki teases Richard about an old girlfriend who was white, he replies, “I go out with one white girl, all of a sudden I’m Prince?”

Even more fascinating are Richard’s moments at home, where he and Brenda have taken great care to raise their children free of racial bias. When Richard mentions his preschool daughter’s white playmates, Brenda has to remind him not to say the word but to spell it out–W-H-I-T-E. Later on, when he and Brenda are having an argument, Richard blurts out nigger in front of the little girl. Brenda is furious, Richard is shamefaced, but the most revealing reaction comes from the daughter, who clearly understands that daddy has used a bad word. As a white guy with no kids, I shouldn’t be able to relate to this at all, but it struck me as the truest and most personal moment in the movie. Rock has said that he wants to be taken seriously as an actor, and I Think I Love My Wife shows that he wants to be taken seriously as a filmmaker. People might be more inclined to do both if his film were a little more black and a little less B-L-A-C-K.

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