'Guess Who': It Looks Like Turkey for Dinner
Friday, March 25, 2005
The gifted comedian Bernie Mac has made a career of the withering glare, and the times he gets to turn it on are the only bright spots in "Guess Who," a remake of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." That 1967 film enlisted no less than Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier to lend their unassailably iconic personae to the then-radical notion of interracial marriage. As a pop cultural bellwether, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" has become something of a classic despite its often painfully earnest, even backhandedly racist, efforts to prove its liberal bona fides.
Thankfully, the filmmakers of "Guess Who" have eschewed the earlier film's fluffy self-righteousness and have somewhat played down the racial angle -- and anyway, a truly 21st-century version of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" would have the daughter bringing home another woman as her fiancee. Here, Poitier's silver-tongued, impeccably credentialed doctor (presumably the only acceptable black man a white daughter of privilege could possibly marry back then) has become a young stockbroker named Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher) who has impulsively quit his job and is on the verge of going broke.
"Guess Who" is relatively message-free mainstream slapstick comedy in which Mac, playing a loan officer named Percy Jones, gets to stare and fume as a generically overprotective father. It's "Guess Who's Meeting the Parents."
Make no mistake: It doesn't help matters that Simon is white, to which an early, mildly amusing scene involving a case of mistaken identity with a cab driver attests. And there are a few moments of painful racial misunderstanding in "Guess Who," such as when Percy baits Simon into telling a series of increasingly offensive "black jokes" at the Jones dinner table. But for the most part, "Guess Who" traffics in the sort of set pieces involving garden-variety male rivalry -- a rather arbitrarily staged go-cart race, for example, or a scene of impromptu touch football -- that would be at home in any assembly-line Hollywood picture. Ever the crowd-pleaser, Mac manages just barely to transcend an otherwise lethargic, talky, almost criminally unfunny enterprise -- much like his multiplex mate this weekend, Sandra Bullock.
If these sequences succeed at all -- and they do only fitfully -- it's because of the impeccable timing and control of Mac, who can get laughs simply by the way he chooses to move out of a room. Indeed, although "Guess Who" features some fetching and gifted supporting players (Zoe Saldana, Kellee Stewart and Judith Scott are particularly appealing as Percy's two daughters and beleaguered wife), this is primarily a showcase for Mac's signature brand of long-simmering rage.
As his foil, Kutcher is suitably bland and wisely gets out of the way during their scenes together. Still, he's so blank -- so, well, white-bread -- that he never manages to create real chemistry with Mac. Think of Owen Wilson, whose impassively mellow exterior provides such a hilarious veneer for what's going on underneath, and you get a sense of the kind of actor Mac could really rock and roll with. Like "Mr. 3000," the last movie in which Mac headlined, "Guess Who" might provide a much-needed fix for Mac's most ardent fans, but they'll have to wait for a star vehicle that fully exploits the range of his comic gifts.