THE SAME THOUGHT, slightly modified, occurred to me twice during "Guess Who," a race-reversal spin on "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" in which the white family of the 1967 film is now black and the daughter's closely scrutinized fiance is now white: It's never a good sign in a comedy when the characters laugh harder than the audience at their own jokes.
This first crossed my mind barely five minutes in, as a pair of office-building rent-a-cops laugh a little too uproariously while watching the antics of the fiance, stockbroker Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher), on an elevator security camera as he proceeds to have progressively less and less hilarious second thoughts about quitting his high-prestige job on the eve of announcing his engagement to his persnickety in-laws. Puh-lease. Give me a chance to laugh before you tell me what's funny.
Truth be told, I actually did manage to cough up a chuckle or two, and spontaneously, I might add. One of those moments of levity, and they're all too rare, comes when Simon and his fiancee, Theresa (Zoe Saldana), first pull up in a cab at the home of her parents (Bernie Mac and Judith Scott), who are expecting a black boyfriend and assume that Simon is the cabbie. The look on Daddy's face is priceless. It may not be much, I know, but what can I say? Mac is funny without even opening his mouth.
Funny, yes, but no miracle worker.
The second time I found a disconnect between the on-screen mirth and that in the audience came during one particularly sticky scene. Simon and Theresa are having dinner with her family when it comes up that Simon just so happens to know some black jokes. After first demurring -- after all, he's not a racist if he's marrying a black woman, is he? -- Simon caves in to his future father-in-law's badgering and proceeds to tell not one but several jokes of varying insensitivity, the least offensive of which plays off golfer Tiger Woods's athletic superiority to most of his Caucasian competitors, and the most offensive of which I am unwilling to describe in even the vaguest of terms.
Egged on by Theresa's sister (Kellee Stewart) and others at the table, who for some strange reason find them initially funny, Simon keeps cranking out the one-liners, punctuated by stunned silences in the audience during which you could have heard a pin drop.
It's as if we were all thinking, "I can't believe he's about to say what I think he's about to say." By the time Theresa's family members come to the conclusion that Simon has gone too far, we're way ahead of them, and their ultimate outrage offers no release for our own feelings of queasiness.
Neither, unfortunately, does the film's eleventh-hour message of touchy-feely tolerance. (You knew that was coming, didn't you?) Be it white-on-black or black-on-white, racism is a serious business. I'm not saying we shouldn't laugh at it. We should. It's just that, somehow, if "Guess Who" were either a whole lot funnier, or a whole lot less funny, it would be a far better film.
GUESS WHO (PG-13, 103 minutes) -- Contains vulgarity and sexual humor. Area theaters.