The current cover of Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood Issue—the biggest wet smackeroo possible from media land—features members of what’s commonly referred to as the film industry’s comedy mafia: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Jack Black, all striking faux-serious poses in white-tie tuxes, as chubby penguins (another major Hollywood crush) wobble off to the side. But there’s someone else too, front and center, gaze steady. It’s the man dubbed “the funniest man in America”—a curse in the making if ever we heard one—Chris Rock.
There’s just something about Chris Rock that seems to inspire sloppy effusion. It may be his voice—that distinctive, gravelly growl that can slide up the scale to high-pitched incredulousness—or his wildly malleable face, one that seems able to register four different emotions and reactions at once. Maybe it’s the way he can get away with saying outlandish (and often uncomfortably true) things about race relations in America without seeming threatening. “Yeah, I love being famous. It’s almost like being white, y’know? People are nice to ya, they give you the benefit o’ the doubt …. You drive a flash car down the freeway and the cops’ll pull y’over, and before they even look they like, ‘What the f**k are you doing?’, and then they see it’s you and they like, ‘Awww man, it’s Chris Rock, it’s O.K.—man, we thought you was a nigga.’”
There’s been a lot to like: Take that first glimpse of him in 1987 with Beverly Hills Cop II, when another brilliant black comic named Eddie Murphy first noticed his shine. Then we got to know him on Saturday Night Live in the early 90’s—the skinny Brooklyn kid who, along with co-stars and friends Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and David Spade, managed briefly to make the show funny again. Before the reign of The Daily Show, there was Mr. Rock as the 1996 Presidential campaign correspondent for Politically Incorrect. There were the blockbuster stand-up acts, Pootie Tang, Nurse Betty, Dogma and a turn as a sassy zebra in Madagascar. There was the hysterical pathos of Everybody Hates Chris, inspired by his own life. Hell, we even loved him as the 2005 Oscar host (get a sense of humor, Sean Penn!).
Now comes the March 16 opening of I Think I Love My Wife. Co-written and directed by Chris Rock, the film is a fresh take on Eric Rohmer’s 1972 classic Chloe in the Afternoon. Mr. Rohmer’s original, part of his “Six Moral Tales” series (considered an essential pit stop in the oeuvre of New Wave cinema), is a serious examination of marriage, infidelity and human foibles. At first glance, a film that follows a blue-eyed suburbanite with a penchant for turtlenecks, Parisian cafés and afternoon assignations might not seem a natural fit for Mr. Rock. However, after a contemporary polishing with co-writer Louis C.K.—another brilliant comic who draws on the trials of married life and fatherhood—the film becomes the perfect vehicle to showcase what lies at the heart of Mr. Rock’s appeal: a genuine warmth that makes him impossible not to root for. In his new film, even as he risks repelling the audience by constantly flirting with thoughts of cheating on his very beautiful wife, we laugh at his internal struggle. To be honest, we’d follow him anywhere: to suburbia, to the city, to the wrong woman’s bed.
Mr. Rock, in fact, has it all wrong. Far from hating him, everybody loves Chris.