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"Guess Who" is more like "Meet the Parents"
Special to The Seattle Times
If you're guessing that "Guess Who" is a modern take on the adroit social commentary that Stanley Kramer brought to racial disquiet in his controversial 1967 comic-drama classic, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," guess again.
Instead, it's a contemporary dumbed-down comedy that's really not as dumb as it could be, but effectively bears no resemblance to the noteworthy material that was its presumptive source. "Guess Who" has more to do with a wacky, crowd-pleasing joke fest like "Meet the Parents" than it does with the reality of a real family dealing with complex issues of society and its intolerant discontents.
In fairness, there's no way a movie from 2005 that tries to play off the challenges of mixed-race relationships could ever compete with a heavy, landmark film that tackled similar issues nearly 40 years ago. For one thing, the times they are a-changed. For another, "Guess Who" is unabashedly proud of superficially amusing gags like Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher tangoing together or sharing the same bed more than it is about the nuances of how the world views a white man who wants to marry a black woman.
Having said all that, "Guess Who" mostly works on all the levels it aspires to, and it evolves with an easy rhythm that's primarily driven by its likable stars. Apart from the table-turning device of having a white man brought home to meet his fiancée's black family, the plot is fairly insignificant, though also fairly well-constructed.
Kutcher plays Simon Green, a financial hotshot who quits his job for moral reasons just before going off for a weekend with fiancée Theresa (Zoe Saldana) to meet the parents. The reversed stereotypes come fast and furious, beginning with Theresa's dad, Percy (Mac), mistaking the black cab driver as his daughter's beau.
There's a lot of humor that plays with racism head-on and in an unusually judicious way. Especially effective is a family dinner scene with Simon being goaded into telling a string of blatantly racist jokes that draw laughs from around the table — until one goes horribly awry. At another key moment, Percy blurts out what everyone has probably thought at some point: "It doesn't matter what I say, you're going to think I'm a racist!"But most of the racial ingredients are overshadowed by the "Father of the Bride" angle of a parent's concern for his daughter's happiness — that and the screwball high jinks.
Particularly good at making the low concept flow so effortlessly is Bernie Mac, who is quickly becoming an invaluable screen persona simply by being himself.
As fans of his popular TV show know, Mac's buggy eyes can express the world, even when the rest of his face remains deadpan. He can also use that unique, puffy face to be communicative in a way few other comic performers can. It conveys disgust, charm, contempt, intelligence, anger, self-satisfaction, menace, benevolence and even love — all at the drop of a hat.
Kutcher, on the other hand, is usually outmatched in his scenes with Mac. Though the two do have a certain chemistry, Kutcher is largely reduced to playing straight man, which is not his forte. He has a long way to go before being considered leading-man material.
The opening scene in which Simon quits his fast-track Wall Street job is a good example of Kutcher trying a little too hard. His range is still pretty limited (as he learned the hard way in the DOA thriller "The Butterfly Effect"), but he's best doing modest physical comedy without all the pratfalls.
There are plenty of times when he seems downright self-conscious, especially during "heartfelt" moments with Theresa. Fortunately, he's frequently rescued by playing sidekick to a gracious, if sometimes deliciously malevolent Bernie Mac.
Ted Fry: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company