While technically a loose, role-reversed comedic remake of 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," the more simply titled "Guess Who" shares more in common with 2000's boisterous "Meet the Parents
." The premise of a young woman bringing home her fiancé to meet her parents for the first time and all of the mishaps that sprout from this potentially uncomfortable situation is virtually identical, but with a twist: the happy lovebirds are of different races. As one can probably already detect, director Kevin Rodney Sullivan (2004's "Barbershop 2: Back in Business
") hasn't reinvented the wheel with this project. What he has done, however, is created a largely crowd-pleasing comedy of errors that faces the subject of present-day race relations head-on and with a modicum of thoughtfulness. There are some slow patches on its journey toward a warm ending, to be sure, but there are also quite a few more big laughs than expected.
Simon (Ashton Kutcher) and Theresa (Zoe Saldana) are young, prosperous Manhattanites in love who are planning a trip to see Theresa's New Jersey parents for the renewal of their vows. As if Simon doesn't have enough pressure on his shoulders in meeting his soon-to-be-in-laws, he finds himself spontaneously quitting/losing his job just before he is about to leave. Simon's luck goes further downhill when he finally comes face-to-face with Theresa's judgmental, suspicious father, Percy (Bernie Mac), who is flabbergasted to discover that his beloved daughter's serious boyfriend is white. While Theresa's even-headed mother, Marilyn (Judith Scott), attempts to keep her hubby in check and have the weekend go off without a hitch, Simon finds himself failing again and again in getting under Percy's good graces, first with a throwaway fib involving Nascar racingPercy turns out to be a Nascar fanaticand later when he is put on the spot and forced to tell black jokes in front of them.
The path "Guess Who" goes down is easily forecast, especially for audience members familiar with "Meet the Parents
." In meeting Theresa's parents for the very first time, everything that could go wrong for Simon does. Percy will remain fervently protective of his daughter, going to great lengths to size up the new man in her life. There will, of course, also be a sudden falling-out between Simon and Theresa when she finds out he hasn't kept his promise in being completely honest with her. And, just when all the chips are down, Simon and Percy will find a common ground and newfound respect for each other in time for the resolutely upbeat conclusion. There is a certain safeness in going to see a film like "Guess Who." By already knowing where things will end up, viewers can concentrate more on how well the formula is handled. In this case, it has handled reasonably well.
Credit screenwriters David Ronn & Jay Scherick (2003's "National Security
") and Peter Tolan (2002's "Analyze That
") for handling the racially-charged humor with uncommon shrewdness. They, as well as director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, mostly avoid stereotypical "ghetto" humor in favor of a more realistic portrayal of how a prosperous, well-to-do African-American father might handle the revelation that his grown daughter's boyfriend is white. Interracial relationships are not the taboo they once were when, say, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was released almost forty years ago, but there is still a stigma placed upon them no matter how much we would like to deny it. It is this notion that "Guess Who" excels at, garnering its strongest comedic moments and somewhat potent emotional core.
When Simon finds himself sitting around a dinner table among Theresa's family members and prattling off all of the black jokes he can think of, the results are at first cute and then very funny, savvily building to an uproarious payoff. Simon's initial introduction to Percy is also cracklingly humorous, as the latter mistakes their black cab driver as Theresa's new beau. A more throwaway but still successful scene has Theresa's sister, Keisha (Kellee Stewart), returning home and confusing Simon for a visiting auditor. Lest the film seem as if it has nothing but race on its mind, "Guess Who" wisely chooses to not overplay this theme, often relying on its natural clashing of opposites angle to carry off the comedy. When things eventually take a serious turn and Simon and Theresa's trust is put into jeopardy, the picture is not as capably grounded; their feud is one that seems a necessity of the screenplay rather than a believable story conflict.
The performances are strong all around, even if the actors' roles are all within their realm of safety. Ashton Kutcher (2004's "The Butterfly Effect
") continues to silence his naysayers who believe he doesn't have range outside of his part of TV's "That '70s Show." Say what you about him, but Kutcher is charismatic, eager-to-please, and a solid romantic lead. For Bernie Mac (2004's "Mr. 3000
"), his turn as father Percy is his best, to date. Mac never grates on one's nerves, even when his overbearing character becomes in danger of doing just that, and he gets a chance to show off a more gentle and amiably caring side. As Theresa, Zoe Saldana (2004's "The Terminal
") is delightful, conveying the joy she has in having found a soul mate. Best of all, no matter how much Simon's prejudices are put into question, Theresa stay true to him and never feels the need to play the race card with him; she knows him, and also knows that it means nothing to him.
Despite its predictability and in spite of the more conventional seams that sporadically show in the script's tapestry, "Guess Who" is an entertaining and diverting way to spend 105 minutes for audiences starved for laughs. When so few comedies these days are actually funny, this one has the smarts and assured comic timing to pull this difficult feat off. The picture is in no way a home run, but it's at least a sound base hit. After all, there is something to be said about a movie in which the by-play between people of different races is not reliant on cheap, distasteful exaggerations, instead opting for finding the truth within said relationships. As Percy comes to acknowledge by film's end, the difference in Simon's skin is just thata color that only runs skin-deep. It's an elementary lesson, but a valuable one.