NEW YORK - In Chris Rock's new film, he plays a mustachioed, bespectacled banker. He's often funny, but just as often serious and self-examining. It's a realistic film adapted from the 1972 French classic "Chloe in the Afternoon."
In short, it's a long way from "Pootie Tang."
"I Think I Love My Wife," which opens in theaters March 16, is Rock's second time directing. The first: 2003's "Head of State," a farce in which an alderman suddenly becomes a presidential candidate.
"If I did `Head of State' tomorrow, it would be more like `All the President's Men,'" says Rock. "It would be that tone, with jokes."
Finding the right tone in movies has been challenging for the 42-year-old Rock. Many of his films - from the underrated "Pootie Tang" to the Farrelly brother's "Osmosis Jones" - have been absurdist.
"I'm in ANOTHER place as far as films are concerned," Rock, in his trademark emphasis, says of the aesthetic shift. "I wish I had gotten here awhile back."
Rock's brilliant standup act - for which he's won Emmys - has always been grounded firmly in reality. "I Think I Love My Wife" draws from his standup material, which has often dealt with relationships and a reluctant acceptance of married life.
"Those are the choices in life: You can be married and bored or single and lonely," Rock said in his 2004 HBO special "Never Scared." "Ain't no happiness nowhere."
In "I Think I Love My Wife," Rock plays a married man with children whose fidelity is tested when an attractive old acquaintance begins dropping by his office (Kerry Washington). There are definite gags (including a heavily advertised one involving Viagra), but much of the basic plot is taken from Eric Rohmer's movie - one of his six moral tales.
"I know it sounds silly. People are like, `Chris Rock and Eric Rohmer?' But if you study his movies and then you study my standup, they kind of go together," says Rock. "We immediately said (`Chloe in the Afternoon') was like a great house with no furniture - no funny furniture, only serious furniture."
Rock co-wrote the script with his friend and frequent collaborator, comedian Louis C.K., who has honed an act known for its ruthless honesty about married life. Louis C.K. believes this is a new direction for Rock.
"I do think there are people that will go, `Why is Chris Rock doing that?'" he says. "But it's actually a lot closer to who he is as a person and as an artist than any other film he's made before. People who are always expecting big (Adam) Sandler-like comedies out him - they're barking up the wrong tree. That's not true to his voice."
Rock has long spoken of his deep admiration for another Brooklyn standup turned filmmaker: Woody Allen. It's not hard to see many parallels between a typical Woody Allen movie and "I Think I Love My Wife," a romantic comedy set in New York.
Rock used Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters" as a reference, but acknowledges his film is "so not on his level." Of his identification with Allen, Rock says: "I'm a nerd. I'm a little guy. ... the last guy you'd expect in a romantic movie."
Of course, Hollywood is often unreceptive to change. Rock says the film was "definitely hard to get made" and that while most of his movie ideas sell before a script has been finished, he says "nobody jumped" at this idea.
He maneuvered the complications of international film rights to get approval for the adaptation, and wrote the script on spec without a deal in place. Once the screenplay was completed, studios were still unconvinced.
Rock summarizes their reaction: "You? Grown-up? Got anything where you're a kid?"
"Guys play characters that won't grow up and something catastrophic happens and they have to grow up to save the day - that's pretty much what today's comedy is about," says Rock. "Nobody wants to make movies about grown-ups."
In the end, Fox Searchlight picked up "I Think I Love My Wife" (made for about $11 million) for distribution. That Rock's film landed at a boutique division specializing in independent movies is a barometer of his new direction.
"It's just part of the business. Whatever you do, if it's successful, you can do THAT again," says the actor-comedian. "Hopefully people will say, `Oh, this is what he should have been doing all along.' Hopefully."
Rock lives in Brooklyn - not far away from his childhood home of Bedford-Stuyvesant - with his two young children and wife (Malaak Compton) of 10 years.
How did she feel about a movie based on a bored husband?
"She was a little scared at first, but when she realized it was a remake, she was cool with it. It made it less personal," says Rock, who assures he's "very happy" in his family life.
Rock, who hosted the Oscars two years ago, has also brought family life to the small screen with his acclaimed TV series "Everybody Hates Chris," which is based on his childhood.
The "Saturday Night Live" alumnus has played several dramatic supporting roles in the past ("Nurse Betty," "New Jack City"), but it's clear Rock believes "I Think I Love My Wife" opens a new chapter for him.
"I don't see myself writing any other movies that aren't in this kind of tone, this real tone," he says. "You live and you learn. You grow."