Anyone expecting the wild-and-crazy, stage-prowling Chris Rock will be disappointed by the comic’s latest cinematic foray as writer-producer-helmer-star, which hews toward more dramatic territory with only intermittent moments of levity. The main drawback is that under director Rock, actor Rock doesn’t possess quite the chops to pull off this character, and the humor and flights of fancy are simply too low-key for a movie that lists “Irresistible Fantasy Woman No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3” in its credits. Beyond Rock’s most fervent loyalists, box office should be modest, though liaisons with DVD and other platforms could be steamier.
Writing with fellow comic Louis C.K., whose stand-up act also zeroes in on the vagaries of marriage, Rock has rather ambitiously chosen to take a stab at reworking the 1972 Eric Rohmer film “Chloe in the Afternoon,” though any number of middle-aged male fantasies — from “10” to “The Woman in Red” — could have provided the template.
Rock plays Richard Cooper, a successful employee in a New York investment firm who, per extensive voiceover narration, is in the throes of an outwardly idyllic but sexually dormant relationship with wife Brenda (Gina Torres), the mother of his two adorable kids. He’s outwardly happily but flatly bored — experiencing the equivalent of an eight-year itch, which leaves him prone to fantasizing about women he passes on the streets or the subway.
Along comes Nikki (Kerry Washington), the ex-girlfriend of one of Richard’s old pals, who arrives seeking a favor and injects an element of excitement into his life — though her repeated visits to his office not only set tongues wagging but also begin to negatively affect his work. Undeniably attracted to her, Richard is quick to say nothing’s happening between them, although he slowly begins to realize this amounts to the worst of both worlds — all of the guilt, with none of the adulterous fun.
None of this is lost on Richard’s co-worker George (an underused Steve Buscemi, brightening things up whenever he’s onscreen), a sort of reverse “Guide for the Married Man,” who counsels Richard that, unlike many husbands, he’s not the type that can stray without pangs of conscience.
Rock previously directed “Head of State,” but the tone here remains mostly flat, even with narration that brings to mind his rightfully lauded CW series, “Everybody Hates Chris.” By failing to maximize Richard’s central predicament, the most intriguing elements are all peripheral, such as Richard and Brenda’s banter about using the “N word” or bitching about W-H-I-T-E-S in front of the kids, and other issues pertaining to the rising black middle class.
Ultimately, the entire movie boils down (“builds” is giving it a bit too much credit) to whether Richard will succumb to temptation, killing time until then with scenes that are alternately amusing, improbable or strained — the most absurd coming when he bribes a restaurant maitre d’ to have a distractingly pretty waitress stationed elsewhere.
The one breakthrough involves Washington, who, after a variety of roles that recently included “The Last King of Scotland,” is unleashed as a full-blown seductress and should see her cachet rise dramatically on the lad-mag circuit. Yet as written, Nikki’s motivations remain so vague as to keep her, perhaps inevitably, more a symbol than a character.
The qualified title, meanwhile, wryly addresses the schizophrenia that plagues Richard throughout the story but culminates in a payoff that, given all that precedes it, rings a trifle hollow. And when Nikki teasingly tells Richard he’s “not in love, you’re in loyal,” she’ll no doubt speak for many Rock fans who, seeing the comic far from his “A” game, will do so less out of love than loyalty.