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Guess Who Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

Guess Who is not a remake of 1967 classic, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Granted, both films' premises are about the same, and the title "Guess Who" is an obvious nudge toward the Stanley Kramer film, but that's where the similarities end. Firstly, the tones are different. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was a serious film with a serious message carried by three serious actors-Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier. It handled the hot issue of interracial marriage, and did so with such caution and respect that today the film is regarded as something of a wimpy soap-box drama. Guess Who considers the same situation of an interracial marriage, but this time, the stage is set for comedy. Mind you, it's not great comedy, but Guess Who has some laughs and even an occasional flicker of pointed drama. It's not as good as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, but as I said, the similarities end abruptly.

When Poitier showed up at Hepburn and Tracy's house in 1967 to announce his engagement to their daughter, it was instant controversy. A black man, even one so intelligent and likable as Poitier, couldn't marry a white girl in 1967 without a few raised eyebrows, or worse. The social climate of the 60s gave Kramer's film a topical edge, natural energy and tension. Guess Who lacks this edge because it has been made in lighter times, where interracial couples are socially acceptable (pardoning the few bad apples). Even though Guess Who turns the tables, featuring a white man marrying into a black family, it still doesn't buzz the way the 1967 film did. I can't really fault Guess Who for this-if anything, it shows how far we've come in race relations. However, it also shows how dated the race comedy has become. Because modern audiences are comfortable watching a black woman and a white man in love, the racial comedy (which Guess Who relies upon almost exclusively) doesn't really shake us up the way the film wants. Admirably, the racial humor is tasteful and never offensive, but it's also not fresh, funny, or challenging. We've heard all these jokes before, and given the rising harmony between races in America, they're not nearly as edgy as they used to be.

The women played an important role in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (hell, if you cast Kate Hepburn, the women better be important), but in Guess Who, the story is essentially about two men. One is Percy Jones (Bernie Mac), a wealthy loan officer and an intimidating yet loving father of two grown girls. The other is Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher), a young, well-off businessman who has just quit his job at a major corporation. Simon is planning to marry Percy's daughter, Theresa (Zoe Saldana), although they have yet to break the news to Percy. They plan to tell Percy and Theresa's mom, Marilyn (Judith Scott), at a family party one weekend, but when Simon and Theresa arrive at the Jones' residence, there's a slight confusion. Percy thinks that the black cab driver (Mike Epps) is Simon and greets him with a smile, remarking upon his solid handshake (ha ha ha). When Theresa finally speaks up and introduces the real Simon, Percy is speechless, and the movie begins.

Big mistake: Theresa didn't tell Percy that Simon is white. Percy's no racist, and he doesn't hate the boy, but he still doesn't quite understand. Theresa's tactless grandfather clearly articulates Percy's thoughts one night at a dinner table, asking "are there no more eligible black men in New York?" Of course there are, but Theresa loves Simon and nothing will separate them. Which means the Percy and Simon are gonna be stuck together as family.

None of this would be worthwhile if not for the actors, all of whom impress in Guess Who. Bernie Mac is up to his usual tricks as the short-fused, fast-talking patriarch, but here he is more subdued, quieter and more contemplative than we're used to. He's the only funny part of the movie, and he manages his few dramatic scenes with surprising skill. Perhaps Mac is channeling Spencer Tracy-whatever it is, it works, and Mac doesn't disappoint. And, surprisingly, Ashton Kutcher isn't irritating-he's actually kind of good. Kutcher plays well with Bernie Mac, and he's pretty likable throughout most of the movie. He's the victim of some truly horrible jokes (such as one scene, where Simon tells a few "black jokes" at the dinner table), but he weathers them like a trooper and gives a consistent performance.

In fact, I still can't believe how effortlessly Mac and Kutcher work together. Guess Who puts them at odds the way Meet the Parents did for Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller-a back-and-forth battle of intimidation and fear. As a reluctant father and son-in-law duo, Kutcher and Mac share energetic chemistry. Perhaps they lack the regal thunder of Tracy and Poitier, but their relationship is enjoyable enough and increasingly more interesting as the film progresses. As Guess Who draws to a close, we're amazed at how comfortable we feel with them and how much we've smiled. Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher may not seem like an ideal comic duo, but heed the film's message-do not judge a book by its cover.

Ultimately, though, Guess Who's racial underpinnings drag it down. We live in a new, better world, and light moral think-pieces like Guess Who aren't all that relevant. Sure, we get a few jokes here and there (and a marvelous gift in the performance of the lovely Zoe Saldana), but nothing worth remembering. Maybe if Guess Who had been made thirty years ago-imagine what a hilarious movie it might have been.

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