March 24th, 2005
“Guess Who” bravely attempts to update the era-specific mood of the 1967 classic, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” but filmmaking has changed many times over since those days. The new “Who” is a slapstick comedy, wonderfully performed by Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher, with its biggest crime being a desire to retain the same level of cultural significance. No dice.
Successful, protective African-American parents Percy (Bernie Mac) and Marilyn (Judith Scott) are awaiting the arrival of their daughter, Theresa (Zoe Saldana, overacting wildly), and her new boyfriend. What they want is a rich, honest black man they can call their son, but what they get is Simon (Aston Kutcher), a recently unemployed white guy who upsets Percy greatly. The two men immediately butt heads, and through a series of comical mishaps, their nice relaxing weekend quickly becomes undone.
“Guess Who” has taken on the dangerous assignment of updating the 1967 interracial surprise classic, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan (“Barbershop 2”), the picture doesn’t take that challenge too seriously, and the new “Who” is a much more slapsticky affair, without any major Hollywood royalty among its actors. But it does have Bernie Mac, and he’s enough to get the film halfway to quality.
“Guess Who” opens as a big, broad comedy about racial confusion and parental protection, and Sullivan keeps the film cheerful and moving in an inoffensive way. Written by David Ronn, Jay Scherick, and Peter Tolan, “Who” has the traditional checklist of sitcomish sequences involving Percy and Simon, most of which “Meet the Parents” did better recently, but the humorous material works due to the persistence of the cast. Sullivan knows very well that whenever he gets into trouble, he can just cut to Mac and his hilarious icy stare towards Kutcher, and the film gets right back on comedic track. “Who” is entertaining when it tries to have some fun with its leaden material, permitting the actors to roll around in the unease of the situation.
The fun stops when “Who” grows a heart; without the regal presence of Sidney Poitier, Katherine Hepburn, or Spencer Tracy, not to mention the hot button issue of race relations in the late 1960s, this new “Who” comes to a crashing halt every time it breaks to mention its racial differences and struggles with a straight face. I do believe the topic has plenty of wealth in it, but not in this movie. Can a film feature both Ashton Kutcher parading around in women’s lingerie and a teary-eyed Zoe Saldana recalling her interracial dating struggles and still be taken seriously? The autopilot script runs through the melodramatic motions over and over, unaware that “Guess Who” is shining its brightest as a silly, carefree romp about miscommunication, and not as a dull, screenwriting template featuring unwelcome dramatics and characters we hardly care about. Laughs are paramount here, yet Sullivan isn’t sharp enough to recognize that.
“Guess Who” features fine chemistry between Kutcher and Mac, and I hope they share plans to team up again for another film that could meet their best comedic abilities more interestingly than this. “Guess Who” might mean well, but the time when this story carried the most weight has passed, and it’ll take a little more than sleepy screenwriting and direction to reawaken its effectiveness.
My rating: C