Finding his way on a new path

The Baltimore Sun

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Chris Rock looks so elegant it makes you want to take an icepick to your Old Navy card. His black sweater might have been spun by silkworms hired by other silkworms. The striped collar peeking out suggests a handmade shirt more comfortable than the sheets in a five-star hotel. Every crease is a knife edge. Every surface plush.

Is this the guy who has stalked comedy stages speculating about Hillary Rodham Clinton's conjugal inadequacies, exposing men's porn habits and describing a U.S. overseas aid program as "dropping 50-pound bags of food on 40-pound people"? Who was too real for the Oscars?

Yes, but the sleek new look is part of a new Chris Rock, whose latest film - I Think I Love My Wife, which opens today - is a remake of director Eric Rohmer's celebrated Chloe in the Afternoon, and a film that asks the rather French question of whether it's possible to lead a moral life and still be a human being. Sacre bleu! A classic of French cinema remade by an American actor - one whose resume includes The Longest Yard, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and the immortal Pootie Tang - is not something that happens every day.

"Not every day," Rock says with a smile, "and especially by me. I keep saying I was the joke assignment for all the reporters this week - Chris Rock and Eric Rohmer? C'mon!'"

But what sounds like an unlikely Franco-American marriage is just one more twist in the serpentine career of Chris Rock. Recruited for the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1990 by Eddie Murphy, the Bedford-Stuyvesant-bred comic spent three years at the NBC show, made his first HBO special in 1993, then blasted off with the subsequent stand-up special Bring the Pain in 1996.

After a memorable performance as a crack addict in 1991's New Jack City, he appeared in a string of dubious movies - Sgt. Bilko, Beverly Hills Ninja, etc. - before hitting an indie-arthouse groove with Dogma and Nurse Betty and as a voice in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Add to this three Emmys, three Grammys, HBO's late, lamented Chris Rock Show and the current CW TV hit, Everybody Hates Chris, and Rock should have a pretty serious view of himself.

So how'd he get into Rohmer? "I was in Tower buying a bunch of foreign movies - it was about four years ago - and Chloe had a naked girl on the cover, so I watched that one first."

'Chloe' hits a nerve

The 1972 film starred Bernard Verley as the bourgeois Frederic, Francoise Verley as his wife, Helene, and Zouzou as the seductive Chloe, the source of Frederic's sexual angst. Rock said he had just moved to the suburbs of New York, his wife had just had their first child, and the theme of Rohmer's film - the sometimes suffocating nature of matrimony - hit a nerve. Even if the movie wasn't precisely his style.

"You ever sit in the passenger seat of a car," he asked, "and you press on the brake? I do that with comedy sometimes. 'Oooh, there was a joke there! Oooh, could have had one there!' I was watching Chloe in the Afternoon and saying, 'Oh, that could have been a big joke.' I liked it immediately, and all those other aspects about it really spoke to me. ..."

Rock bought the rights to the Rohmer film and wrote I Think I Love My Wife with his Pootie Tang director, comedian Louis C.K. Fox.

Rock plays money manager Richard Cooper. Via narration and some fantasy visual aids, we learn that Richard is a serial philanderer - but only in his mind. He maintains a thriving fantasy sex life until a bombshell named Nikki (Kerry Washington) re-enters his life and he has to decide whether to fish or cut bait.

Richard has it all. A great job, a home, respect, beautiful kids and a beautiful wife named Brenda (Gina Torres), but they've been married seven years and the proverbial itch has become chronic.

"Everybody thinks the movie's just about relationships," Rock said, "but it's about America, in the sense that in a country where food and shelter are relatively easy to come by, you get bored easy ... people get bored of things they used to love."

Marriage, he said, is just another relationship. "It's the most important relationship of your life, but it's still a relationship and we get bored with every relationship."

A 'Chris Rock' movie

Back at the Four Seasons, Rock's cell phone rings. He looks at it quizzically. "My wife's on a plane today," he says, wondering aloud who's calling. Having opened that door, so to speak, he's asked about rumors of the collapse of his own marriage; recent reports have raised speculation that he and wife, Malaak, mother of his two daughters, are on the outs.

"We're fine," he says. "We're fine."

The door has evidently closed.

Rock said he likes directing, more or less - his first film at the helm was Head of State (2003) - but until he hits paydirt with a specifically "Chris Rock movie," directing will be "more of a necessity."

"I hope this movie creates a template for the kind of movie I should be doing," he said, "so I can hire someone else to do it. I like movies. I want to keep making them. It's about time I found the kind that fits me."

John Anderson is a correspondent for Newsday.

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