‘Guess Who’ is not the question, but why?
Bad cover versions of classic songs are everywhere. (And shockingly, most of them are not found on “American Idol.”) Following suit, the film industry sees a ripe opportunity and a dearth of original scripts as enough provocation to remake or at least pilfer liberally from classic filmdom. “Guess Who” does the latter, in this case attempting to update the groundbreaking “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which, considering race relations in 1967 took some bravura to release. “Guess Who” implies things have changed, but avoids serious analysis. Returning to the music analogy, there could be a relevancy in covering Marvin Gaye’s magnificent and poignant “What’s Going On?” — also released at the height of the Vietnam war — but thankfully the music industry has shown some restraint.
However, in Hollywood these days, any project that can showcase bankable TV celebrities (the word “actors” was carefully not selected) gets green-lighted and the film’s social commentary seems to be an afterthought.
The celebrities in this case are Ashton Kutcher (“That ’70s Show”) and Bernie Mac (“The Bernie Mac Show”). Kutcher and Mac are paired as the white future son-in-law Simon and Percy, the surprised black father.
Percy’s daughter Theresa (Zo? Saldana) has neglected to tell her parents (Mom is played by Judith Scott) that the boyfriend she is bringing from the city to the suburbs of New Jersey is white. They also hope to spring their forthcoming nuptials on their parents and the film aspires to the comic territory that “Meet the Parents” covered so successfully.
As a comedy, “Guess Who” is rarely funny, and rarely takes chances. One exception: A hilarious dinner table sequence where Percy prods Simon into telling black jokes. It’s the one sequence in the film that feels authentically edgy and that’s why it succeeds. But most of the film follows predictable setups with predictable results, all of them unrealistic. (Percy forces Simon to sleep with him in order to protect his daughter in the other room, even though the couple already lives together?)
So what does “Guess Who” have going for it? Well, Bernie Mac is watchable, even though he’s basically duplicating his exact TV persona as a big bear with a soft heart. His respect for his wife and daughter are genuine. But by the end, we are still not sure why the radiant Theresa fell in love with a skinny doofus like Simon — especially when he loses his job (for reasons unknown) as an investment broker and doesn’t tell her. Still, Kutcher is as likable here as he is going to get in any movie despite being destined to be the Ben Affleck to his much more gifted TV co-star Topher Grace’s Matt Damon.
As a comedy, save a few moments, “Guess Who” is strictly middle-of-the-road. There is a lot to be said about the ever-present complexities of cross-racial relationships, but those are tricky waters this film chooses not to navigate. “Guess Who” is a movie that realizes the best it can do is to remind us that with enough love we can all just get along.
Rated PG-13 for sexual references and some profanity.