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Chris Rock
"My movies normally live and die by the next joke, but this one works on levels like nothing I've ever done," Chris Rock says of "I Think I Love My Wife." (Scott Lewis for the Boston Globe)

Taking the lead

Chris Rock wanted a big role in a real movie. So what did he do? Wrote and directed it himself.

NEW YORK
He's sold out comedy tours, co-created two hit TV shows, written a best seller, won a collective six Emmys and Grammys, and been labeled the funniest man in America by no less than "Time" and "Entertainment Weekly." His distinctively abrasive voice is a fixture in animated hits like "Madagascar" and ensemble pieces like "The Longest Yard" and "Lethal Weapon 4." So why isn't Chris Rock a leading man yet?

Rock's razor-sharp wit and brains are on display in the new comedy "I Think I Love My Wife" -- his second effort behind the camera, following 2003's political satire "Head of State." The filmmaker also hopes a new maturity is in evidence.

"My movies normally live and die by the next joke, but this one works on levels like nothing I've ever done," says Rock. Looking trim in a blue pinstripe suit, the 42-year-old -- known for his shouty monologues and panther-like pacing onstage -- comes off surprisingly subdued and soft-spoken in person. "I've been married 10 years, have two kids, and live in the suburbs. I was really trying to do something different this time, something grounded in a real place."

In "I Think I Love My Wife," which opens Friday, Rock stars as Richard Cooper, a Manhattan investment banker and happily married father of two who also happens to be bored out of his mind. Already struggling to control his roving eye, the family man is forced to reconsider his priorities when Nikki Tru (Kerry Washington), a gorgeous blast from his past, struts back into his life.

The unexpected inspiration for the film is French New Wave director Eric Rohmer's 1972 drama "Chloe in the Afternoon," which Rock jokes he only watched because he was attracted to the woman on the DVD cover. The classic morality tale first caught the comic's eye as he was strolling through a record store four years ago. Genuinely bowled over by the last of Rohmer's six-part film cycle, he immediately sent "Chloe" over to his friend and frequent collaborator Louis C.K. (HBO's "Lucky Louie," "The Chris Rock Show"), who agreed it had potential as comedy.

But turning Rock's passion project into a reality was a hard sell to studios. "Normally when I say I want to do a certain idea, people run with it," says Rock. "Say I want to play a black man running for president. Done! This one, everybody thought I was out of my [expletive] mind and completely wasting my time."

Realizing he was on his own, the comedian dedicated himself to making Rohmer's philosophical treat accessible to American audiences (and financiers). Working between other films and tours, Rock and Louis carefully hammered away at the script, usually with a Woody Allen dramedy playing in the background for inspiration.

" 'Hannah [and Her Sisters]' was big for this movie," says the notorious Allen fan. "We watched a lot of 'Hannah' for inspiration. A lot of 'Lost in Translation.' Also, action movies; for the scene in D.C. where [Nikki's ex-boyfriend] Teddy's beating me up, we kind of stole that from 'Layer Cake.' "

To ensure the script was grounded in reality, Rock conducted a series of table read-throughs -- a first in his career. The revolving series of participants included Rock's long-time mentor Spike Lee and former "Bad Company" co star Washington, who originally read for the role of Richard's wife but talked her way into playing the more vivacious Nikki.

"I was really impressed by the way her character was written on the page," says Washington. "Louis and Chris are guy's comedians, but they really managed to create this three - dimensional, complicated, and psychological character who was really human."

After signing on for the film, Washington was also impressed by Rock's preparedness on set. "Maybe it's because he's a friend, but I was like, 'You have storyboards? You've thought about how Nikki talks? Wow!' " she says with a laugh. "I guess I think of him as a comedian and a writer, but not as an actor necessarily, so I was expecting to be on my own for the film. But he really directed me. He kept making me drop my voice down a register, because I [usually] sound younger when I talk."

Rock also worked extensively with Will Rexer, his director of photography. "We sat down and went through every scene in this movie and talked about what the camera could do emotionally. We were really into the emotional beats of the movie, which work as much as the comedic beats, if not more," says Rock. "The best scene, for me, is when Nikki says to Richard, 'We could be really happy together, wouldn't you want that?' And he's like, 'Hey, that's not what my life is about.' That's better than any comedic moment. That's essentially what being a grown-up is."

Though he quickly won over his crew and co stars, Rock was never married to the idea of directing "Wife." "It kind of ended up on me," says Rock, who concedes that while directing "Head of State," the story "kind of got in the way for me" and the film ended up as basically just a string of jokes.

"Because ['Wife'] ended up being for Fox Searchlight and because of the [indie-scale] money, we couldn't get a couple guys I wanted and deals were continuously falling through," says Rock, who adds that the cast and crew basically worked for scale. "I mean, don't cry for me Argentina, but I didn't make any money on this movie, which luckily I can afford to do. But I've got the best movie I've done, so that's worth a lot more money than I could imagine."

Rock has certainly come a long way since his first screen appearance -- a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as a valet in "Beverly Hills Cop 2." Raised in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Rock began performing stand-up as an 18-year-old high school dropout and scored his first big break in 1990, getting hired on "Saturday Night Live" as essentially the next Eddie Murphy and defecting to "In Living Color" three years later. The cancellation of the Fox sketch show fortuitously forced Rock back into stand-up, where he quickly became a comic superstar thanks to his no-holds-barred HBO specials "Bring the Pain" in 1996, "Bigger and Blacker" in 1999, and "Never Scared" in 2004.

Though the comic's raucous and usually race-driven humor has primarily lent itself to R-rated material, the husband ( of Malaak Compton, to whom he's been married for more than a decade ) and father ( of daughters Lola Simone, 4, and Zahra Savannah, 2 ) has recently dipped his toe in more family-friendly material, voicing the role of Mooseblood the Mosquito in pal Jerry Seinfeld's CGI flick "Bee Movie" and reprising his work as Marty the Zebra in "Madagascar 2."

Not that Rock's gone soft. He's currently hoping to reunite with Murphy on a heist comedy ("We're waiting for a script. The first one [by 'Inside Man' scribe Russell Gewirtz] already came in and it [was lousy]") and recently directed his first music video: "Hump De Bump" for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "Anthony [Kiedis], who's a friend, paged me [asking] if I want to do it," says the music buff. "I paged him back, 'Sure, as long as you guys agree to be the only white people in the video.' "

The burgeoning director is also looking to collaborate with "better people," including Alexander Payne, Terry Zwigoff, and Jay Roach.

"I'm not sitting around writing movies because I want to. It's because I have to," says Rock, who's now anxiously waiting to see how "Wife" does. Or more importantly, how the film is received.

"Forest [Whitaker] just won an Oscar for ' The Last King of Scotland, ' which is far from a blockbuster. But if this movie's received well, then I think this is where I need to be," says Rock. "Not that I need to constantly do movies about married people, but just the tone of this movie is where I need to reside."

And if the reception is less than favorable, Rock can always return to his roots. "I'm trying to get some stand-up together, wouldn't mind going on tour. The world's changing, and whenever the world changes, that's when it's time to go back. "

Michelle Kung can be reached at michelle.kung@gmail.com.

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