I will forgive a lot of things in a film about race — an outdated premise, a mediocre script, focus-group blandness, and even outright schmaltz — as long as the movie treats its characters with dignity and respect. Too many movies these days tend to treat race with a one-dimensional paintbrush, creating offensive racial caricatures out of sheer laziness: the sassy African-American woman with a ghetto attitude, the angry black man with a felony-fueled pride, or the swaggering hip-hop archetype, who dons gold chains and speaks in izzle lingo. There are only a handful of films in a decade that create well-rounded black characters; unfortunately, for every Barbershop, there are three White Chicks; for every He Got Game, there are five Soul Planes, and for every Friday there are another dozen or so Juwanna Mans.
Before I saw Guess Who, I’d already decided to remark that we haven’t really come that far since the original Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967 if, in 2005, we are still making movies that exploit racial disparities. On first blush, I assumed that Guess Who was going to be just another in the long line of mass-market African-American films with stock black characters; even if it is the Caucasian who is in the minority here, I couldn’t help but to assume that the presence of a white man in a black family would only call attention to more racial stereotypes.
But I was completely off the mark. Guess Who has a litany of problems, including a fractured script, stilted situations, a limited premise, and heavy-handedness. But the black characters have more than one dimension; it may not be a complex movie about racial exploration, but, damnit, there is not a single character in Guess Who that isn’t likable and, though race is played for laughs throughout, it’s parodied instead of exploited, and the screenwriters (David Ronn, Jay Scherick, and Peter Tolan) are smart enough to handle the racially-charged humor without dragging in the offensive ghetto stereotypes so common in Martin Lawrence and Wayans Bros. films.
Despite its successful treatment of race, Guess Who is still far from a wholly successful film. Bernie Mac plays Percy Jones, a suburban loan officer who is about to renew his vows to his wife of 25 years. On the same weekend, Percy’s oldest daughter, Theresa (the beautiful Zoë Saldaña) is coming from New York with her boyfriend, Simon (Ashton Kutcher). Theresa, however, has neglected to inform her family that Simon is white; and Simon hasn’t told anyone that he’s just been fired from his job as some sort of Wall Street broker. It is those two omissions that provide the narrative thrust for Guess Who Percy Jones hides behind his crustiness, and Simon tries to win over Percy’s affection without revealing to anyone that he’s lost his job.
The interracial premise itself wears out its welcome pretty quickly; watching various family members register astonishment at the site of a white man in their house can only get you so far. Luckily, the filmmakers for the most part recognize this and move the film into different, well-trod territory, resorting to unimaginative jokes about the differences between men and women cribbed primarily from “Married … with Children” episodes, and overprotective-father humor, borrowed heavily from Meet the Parents.
Through it all, Mac and Kutcher provide a surprisingly winning charisma that elevates the movie above its source material. Kutcher is unexpectedly reserved, rarely displaying the obnoxious goofiness that lost its appeal three years into “That 70’s Show” and about 45 seconds into Dude, Where’s My Car? Bernie Mac plays the same character he’s always played, minus all the “doggones,” but here he’s allowed to express his amiable gentleness a bit more, infusing gruff humor with a teddy-bear likability . Kutcher and Mac together provide inspirational adversarial chemistry, improving tenfold over the Robert DeNiro/Ben Stiller mold.
Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan (Barbershop 2, How Stella Got Her Groove Back) once again displays his ability to pull out the sweet-natured Father of the Bride elements of a script , though he’s far more successful in mixing humor with light social commentary. And though he never says anything groundbreaking about tolerance and interracial dating, the comedy is responsible, and for that alone, Guess Who is worth seeing.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
Guess Who / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()