Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? was a landmark film that dealt with issues of race in a way they’d never been dealt with on screen before. The story of a young white woman bringing her black boyfriend home to meet her parents addressed racism and prejudice head-on, paving the way for other movies to deal with the same ideas. The most recent of them is Guess Who, a loose comedic remake. I’m not sure if we’ve come a long way or not very far at all if this classic social-issue drama is being remade as a sitcom-quality comedy. Still, for what it is, the movie is better than you might expect.
Bernie Mac stars as Percy Jones, a proud man who works as a bank loan officer. He and his wife Marilyn (Judith Scott) are about to renew their wedding vows after 25 years. Daughter Theresa (Zoe Saldana) is scheduled to come to New Jersey for the event, and she’s bringing along her boyfriend Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher). Theresa and Simon plan to announce their engagement, but things get off to a rocky start when they arrive. Percy is shocked to discover that her daughter is dating a white man and is reluctant to accept Simon. It’s not even so much the fact that Simon is white as it is the fact that Theresa didn’t tell him that Simon was white. It makes him wonder what other secrets are being hidden.
Things don’t improve when Simon tries to warm up to Percy; his attempts at friendliness fall flat at every turn. To avoid discussing a painful childhood, Simon tells a small lie. Percy instantly recognizes it as a lie and refuses to trust Simon any longer. He also proves to be an overprotective father, locking the young man in the basement at night to make sure Theresa has some “undisturbed” sleep. Making things worse is the fact that Simon has just abruptly quit his high-paying job – a fact which he has neglected to tell Theresa. When Percy does some spying by running Simon’s credit report, he discovers this fact and nearly goes apoplectic.
Guess Who is not the smartest, most insightful, or most intelligent movie ever made about race. Far from it, in fact. There’s too much of a tendency to play the humor for slapstick laughs rather than really mining the emotional truths of our culture’s ongoing struggle with prejudice. For example, Percy and Simon try to work out their differences by racing each other at a go-cart track. The big joke is that they end up running the carts off the track and into the street. Not exactly a cutting commentary, is it? You could easily take this material and make a darker, more satirical comedy from it. That would require having something more than a basic point of view about race. You’d have to tap into deeper – and potentially more uncomfortable – reasons why modern racism exists. Guess Who really isn’t prepared to go much beyond the surface, with one exception. (More on that in a minute.)
Although I would have preferred an edgier style of humor, the movie isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. In fact, it’s quite entertaining in its own way, thanks to the performances of the actors, especially Bernie Mac. The cast takes throwaway material and invests it with some life. Consider the sequence in which Percy and Simon ride in the car. No matter what radio station Percy flips to, they hear some song dealing with race, such as “Ebony and Ivory.” It’s a pretty obvious joke, but I laughed because the two characters share a look of quiet discomfort. Mac and Kutcher play off one another surprisingly well. Mac does a series of increasingly complex slow burns and Kutcher (whom I have admittedly disliked greatly in the past) humorously stumbles and stammers as he tries to soften up his co-star’s gruffness.
An example of how Guess Who could have been more than just passable entertainment comes during a dinner sequence halfway through the film. The entire Jones family – including Theresa’s grandfather and sister – is present, as is Simon. Somehow the topic turns to racial humor. Percy baits Simon, encouraging him to tell one black joke, then another, then another, until he finally tells the wrong one. I liked how the scene played out, with Percy intentionally setting a trap and Simon purposefully walking into it in order to not seem like he’s backing down. Had there been additional scenes similar to this, Guess Who might have ended up saying something more substantial than it ultimately does.
Another saving grace is the fact that there are scenes between Simon and Theresa showing us how in love they really are. Most movies, I imagine, would have just used the black girl/white guy scenario as a hook on which to hang jokes, never taking the time to convince us that the affections of the characters were real. In this case, Kutcher and Saldana get some genuinely nice moments together that establish how their characters feel. Consequently, we buy into the comedic concept that Simon really wants to win Percy over, no matter the cost.
I don’t think Guess Who is a very good movie about its subject. It probably goes without saying that everyone learns a predictable – and obvious – lesson at the end. Hopefully we all know by now that the color of a person’s skin isn’t what counts, and the people who don’t know that will need a stronger movie than this one to convince them of it. However, I thought that Guess Who worked pretty well as a piece of light entertainment. Mac and Kutcher are an unexpectedly funny team who elevate familiar material and turn a few moments of real inspiration into undeniable bursts of hilarity. It’s worth seeing for their performances.
( out of four)
Guess Who is rated PG-13 for sex-related humor. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
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