Sunday, March 18, 2007

I Think I Love My Wife

Chris Rock’s just released comedy, I Think I Love My Wife, stars Rock as Richard Cooper, an upper-middle class investment banker whose seven-year, now sex-less marriage to an elementary school teacher bores him silly. Based on French New Wave director Eric Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon, Rock’s adaptation turns in a slight comedy that documents Cooper’s slide in and out of sexual temptation. Life and sex options present themselves in the lovely countenance and luscious body of “old friend” Nikki Tru, played by the inestimable Kerry Washington (who deserves much better material, although she manages to wrangle a solid and smart—not just sexy—performance from what Rock, who wrote and directed the film, hands her here).

I Think . . . offers some promising social observations about race and class, but fails dismally to think in intelligent, progressive ways about gender and sexuality. Narrated by Rock’s Richard Cooper, the film winks and nods at the audience from the start, as he introduces what looks like his perfect family (a beautiful, professional wife, played by Gina Torres, two adorable children, one girl, one boy, a crisply landscaped and stately Westchester house, and all the other accoutrements that come with the paycheck of a Wall Street drudge). But when the camera first pulls back to frame Cooper leaving his domestic habitat for the Metro North train into the city, he looks out at the audience with bemused dismay, his image captioned “bored.”

These interjections of pointed (or to be more precise, pointing) editorial comments try to raise the level of this comedy to social satire, but it remains tethered to frat boy sexual humor infused with a strangely sad poignancy about the inevitability of assuming the stifling trappings of adulthood. The film makes it obvious that Richard is unhappy in his ritzy neighborhood (he’s the only person of color waiting for the train each morning), and dissatisfied with his high-powered job (where he knows by name the other people of color who work in his firm, one of whom is a cleaning woman and the other, a janitor) for reasons that have a lot to do with the singularity of his race in these resolutely white settings. But at the same time, the narrative insists, evidence to the contrary, that Richard’s problems really stem from his wife’s refusal to have sex. What the film intimates is a social problem it too quickly lets slide into a privatized, personal problem. His wife Brenda has become more interested in draperies than in his penis, leaving Richard to fantasize about women he sees on the train and on the streets of Manhattan.

At the banking firm where he toils, primly monitored by two white middle-aged female secretaries and George, a white middle-aged male colleague/friend (played by a wry and dissolute Steve Buscemi), Richard feels like a token but molds himself to the demands of his place in the firm. He wears sleek, expensive suits with silk ties, and holds himself like he’s born to the pedigree boasted by his prominently displayed degree from Columbia. The film gives nary a hint of his backstory, until Nikki Tru reappears in his life after an eight-year hiatus to catapult Richard back into a moment before the sober responsibilities of bread-winning and fathering and domestic husbandry descended to ruin his fun.

Nikki was Richard’s friend Nelson’s girlfriend. When she left Nelson, he tried to kill himself. We meet the poor schlub later in the film, and note that the bespectacled, straight-laced guy who reeks of “mama’s boy” is still pathologically hung up on his old girlfriend. This is the power of the Tru siren song; her galvanizing sexuality and intemperate spirit of adventure makes these men feel young and powerful. She good-naturedly hounds Richard at his office, raising the eyebrows of his morals-policing secretaries and even sympathetic George, who runs his own game of sexual infidelity with office temps. But George doesn’t take it seriously and no one seems to judge him for his indiscretions, as they do Richard. George keeps Viagra in his car's glove compartment, and can have sex with an array of women then go home at night to kiss his wife without compunction. Richard, on the other hand, has “feelings,” George tells him sadly, which makes it difficult to be an adept adulterer.

Indeed, the story tugs Richard’s feelings every which way as it proceeds to its inevitable conclusion. He loves his kids, scrambling across the floor to play with his daughter, but Nikki’s attentions make him feel like a kid again. She takes him to a car show, where they sit in the front seat of a sporty Porsche and fantasize about owning it. They play driving simulators together, hysterical at their video crashes and careering turns. She shows him a neat game where they sit on the windowsill of his office and throw dollar bills out the window, watching hapless pedestrians race to scrape the cash off the sidewalk. They make race jokes together, critiquing instantly and empathically how racial differences play out in almost every interaction, from crowded elevators filled with buttoned-down white people to the scramble-for-the-money-game where obviously well-heeled white men grab the cash from homeless people of color.

Nikki and Richard share a sense of their own outsiderness, not for how it oppresses them, but for how their analysis empowers them to be aware of moving through a world in which they know race matters. Brenda, on the other hand, makes Richard spell “white” and “black” in front of their daughter, hiding from her some truth about race that Nikki, loyal to her name, stands by with a rather appealing critical knowingness. Nikki won’t assimilate; Brenda accepts it as her rightful destiny.

While this narrative thread would make a smart, perceptive indie film, I Think I Love My Wife reneges on its promise and harnesses its story to the sexual possibility Nikki dangles in front of Richard with every move. She needs him to recommend her for a hostessing job at a restaurant, and to help her break up with a homicidal boyfriend, but she also needs his attention and his desire as evidence of her own power and agency. He resists the urge to have sex with her, but his longing for the unfettered, youthful possibility she represents in his life is nearly as distracting.

Brenda suspects something’s wrong and accuses Richard of infidelities he hasn’t, technically, committed. But when he comes home late, his clothes awry, and his excuses lame, she speaks to him like a child and he shrivels under her disapproval. Brenda isn’t his wife, she’s his mother, a withholding nag who reminds him of his domestic duties without giving him the sex he thinks is his married due. She emasculates him, while Nikki pumps him up to feel virile and heroic.

Richard joins Nikki in an unexpected, disastrous (and narratively unnecessary) trip to DC to cut her ties with her ex, which gets Richard beat senseless and nearly causes him to lose his job when their return flight is delayed and he misses a meeting. Brenda is apoplectic, so his marriage, too, nearly ends. This push to the brink snaps Richard out of his infatuated fantasy. He stops taking Nikki’s calls and hurries back into the family fold in a montage of scenes shot like Kodak moments ,with his wife and his children and Santa and the Easter Bunny and various other moms and dads (all white) singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” in nursery school classrooms while sitting in circles on the floor. Although the film wants to tell us that this is his proper milieu, you can’t help feeling Rock/Richard’s helpless acquiescence to this utter superficiality.

When Nikki reappears months later, suddenly professionalized and polished, sophisticated and mature, to visit Richard at his office wearing a lovely cream linen suit instead of a silken fire engine red cocktail dress, she’s found herself her own man. She’s decided that she isn’t getting any younger and should embrace the married-with-children destiny that descends on these characters with grim inevitability. Nikki doesn’t love the man she intends to marry; she just realizes that she’s 32, not 22, and that her sex appeal is already fading (another of the film’s more unbelievable assertions).

Nikki invites Richard to her place ostensibly for one last goodbye but actually to consummate their flirtation before they settle into their boring “normal” lives. After some barely convincing indecision, he slips off his wedding ring and follows her directions to her home. But even though Nikki’s tarted up in the lacy, barely-there underwear we know Richard loves, and even though she wears skyscraping catch me/fuck me heels that she hints she’ll keep on in bed, and even though Richard approaches his mission with appropriate zeal, when push comes to shove, he can’t follow through. Stripping off his tie, he catches himself in a mirror in Nikki’s bedroom and, in one of the film’s more odious substitutions, realizes that he’s a father, not an adulterer, and stops himself from going through with the act that will, according to the film’s logic, threaten everything. While Nikki languishes nearly naked on her bed, calling out to Richard not to go, he literally runs home to his wife. They resolve years of marital discord in a matter of moments with wailing musical accompaniment and theatrical lip-syncing to lyrics meant, I presume, to underline and satirize the high drama of the moment. Richard and Brenda promise to be close to each other, to have sex with each other, and to live together happily every after.

So, of course, Richard loves his wife. But what a sad state of affairs when marriage is painted as an obligation for men and women, when men are infantilized by their wives, when women are represented as mothers or whores, when African Americans are secluded in white enclaves and call it success, when people compromise vitality for deadening conformity, when being like everyone else, regardless of your race and your gender, is more important than your own aspirations. Can’t a pretty smart comedian make a movie that commits to a social critique instead of pretending nothing’s wrong with this picture? Can’t Rock imagine instead how to buck a system that whitewashes difference and squanders our talents, our desire, and our knowledge of how corrupt it is to want what the (white) Jones’s have?

Perplexed,
The Feminist Spectator

3 comments:

  1. surface earth4/20/2007 3:37 PM

    Ah. What a well done post.

    Love, can be the banner card of simpletons.

    When you love, "agape", there is no obligation.

    You do so from the deepest well of your heart.

    There is no resistance to outside forces, because you are already centered and grounded.

    I like your post, but believe true love does not have those gray areas.

    Peace.

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  2. Not to reduce it to being a "Black thang", but.....screw it, I am.

    I walked out of that film thinking to myself that only those privy to the Black middle class and/or "educated" experience would get it. To me it was mostly a commentary on that experience, the best example being the couple's night dinner. That conversation was dead on.

    And the song at the end, well, know that was an original piece that you probably have to be acquainted with some 80's R&B - in particular: "Fire & Desire" by R. James and T. Marie.

    This is not to day that it isn't a basically formulaic film, (although I did appreciate the final decision to return as going decidedly against the sexualized-Black-male norm).

    But I feel it may be the wink of an eye of a very specific hue.

    (pardon the generality of the response, but I haven't kept my critical analysis as up to par as I could've)

    peace,
    some moody jerk from the grad actor class of '04

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  3. In response to "some moody jerk from the grad actor class," hey, thanks for writing! And I do think you're right--if you can read the codes of the black middle class, there's much to see in the film that as a middle-class white person who can't read all the signs or lacks familiarity all the references, I no doubt missed. I appreciate the response; it's always good to hear what other people see in films, theatre, novels, etc. No moodiness found here! And all my best to you, jd

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