To get a sense of how comedians Chris Rock and Louis C.K. process film genre, it helps to know that C.K. defends "GoodFellas" as "funnier than 'It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,' " while Rock describes "Lost in Translation" as "the blackest movie I've ever seen."
This kind of interpretive creativity explains why the new comedy of marriage they've written, "I Think I Love My Wife," is based on French New Wave writer-director Eric Rohmer's 1972 drama, "Chloe in the Afternoon."
Rock fans may have trouble reconciling his prowling stage persona with the role he plays in "Wife": Richard Cooper, a subdued, bespectacled, mustachioed Wall Street businessman whose seven-year marriage has slipped into the dangerous comfort of boredom and sexlessness. When a sexy and flirtatious old crush reenters Cooper's life, Rock and C.K., with typical frankness, give the viewer a tour of temptation as it plays through the mind of the kind-of-happily married man.
But with this "huge departure," Rock, who also directed, seems more relaxed than in the past with that uncertainty; he admits that this is the first time he has made the kind of movie that he actually likes to see.
"I didn't know any better," he says of past writing efforts like "Down to Earth" and "Head of State," modestly successful releases in which he was trying to pursue the Adam Sandler-Jim Carrey path to stardom. "I was just trying to make a movie that made a ton of money. So I would shut down this whole side of my brain. I mean, these are the kind of movies I like. I love 'Talladega Nights,' but I'd rather watch 'Hannah and Her Sisters.' "
Although no one will confuse Rock's whiplash riffs with Woody Allen's stuttering cerebralisms, there's joy in watching Rock address "Wife's" subject matter with a new kind of maturity.
"Basically this movie is about a guy at a stage in his life that we're at," says C.K., whose now-canceled HBO show, "Lucky Louie," also explored domestic life. "Where we're a kid deep into a marriage and starting to feel some ambivalence and clouded feelings."
For two suburban husbands -- Rock lives in New Jersey and C.K. in upstate New York-- now with two kids each, just walking around Manhattan, the "coolest, sexiest city of our time," was inspiration enough. Like their protagonist, they would commute into the city to work on the script, talk about their home lives, screen movies, run out for Indian food, marvel at the armies of attractive single women, and even shop for baby clothes (which led to a moment worthy of the movie, during which they were sorting through onesies while the saleswoman none-too-subtly tried to pick up Rock).
Although they kept the big beats of Rohmer's film, Rock and C.K. put more emphasis on the marriage while looking for chances to blow out comedy scenarios that go unexplored in "Chloe." "There were little opportunities that we teased out," C.K. says. "The departures from his regular life get a little more dangerous. But we kept a lot of the weird French existential stuff."
"I look at it like a great cover song," Rock says. "There's the Carpenters' 'Superstar' and there's Luther Vandross' 'Superstar.' If you don't know any better, you don't even know they're the same song."
Rock, 42, and C.K., 39, began crossing paths in the mid-'80s in the New York City comedy club circuit. But they didn't start working together until Rock was pulling together his Emmy-winning "The Chris Rock Show" for HBO in 1996. Rock offered C.K. the chance to develop and run the half-hour showcase from scratch, but C.K. decided instead to follow his fellow "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" writers to Dana Carvey's new show, a seemingly more high-profile forum until it tanked.
C.K. made a chagrined call to ask for a slot on the Rock show's writing staff. There were no hard feelings, as they went on to win Emmys for outstanding writing on the show in 1999 and collaborated on the features "Down to Earth" and "Pootie Tang," which C.K. wrote and directed.
"Sandler always says: 'You can't make comedy with strangers,' " Rock says. " 'Wait, we have one meeting and now we're making a movie? No. Why don't we just have a baby together while we're at it?' Your friends know what's funny about you. Somebody who doesn't know you just knows your greatest hits. But your friends know the album tracks. 'Hey, Track 9, Album 3, remember that one?' They know that you're funny doing this other thing too."
Beyond the gates of Hell
During a recent screening of "Beyond the Gates," an affluent middle-aged couple rose from their seats and quietly pushed out into the theater lobby. There they encountered David Wolstencroft, 37, who wrote the agonizing drama they had been watching -- or rather, enduring -- about the unfathomably grim beginnings of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.