Guess Who (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Despite the allusion in the title, Guess Who is not a remake of the classic Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. In fact, other than borrowing the underlying premise (girl brings home boyfriend of a different race to meet her family), there are few similarities between the films. To start with, the 1967 feature was primarily a message melodrama that doubled as an examination of race relations at the time. Kevin Rodney Sullivan's (How Stella Got Her Groove Back) 2005 movie is an overt comedy that, while not ignoring the race issues altogether, uses them more frequently for humor than to illustrate serious points. And society has changed in the last 40 years. What was controversial and daring in 1967 (interracial relationships) is no longer so today. Although it would be unfair to characterize Guess Who as vapid, it bears a closer resemblance to a fusion of Meet the Parents and The Odd Couple than to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Guess Who pairs Bernie Mac with Ashton Kutcher, and, if nothing else, it's an opportunity to weigh their acting skills against one another. With his ability to command the screen and switch gears easily from comedy to drama, Mac wins hands-down. Kutcher often seems ill at ease, as if he's trying too hard. He's at his best when he plays things low key, and at his worst when he attempts flamboyant comedy. I suspect Kutcher could be a decent actor if he stopped trying to force every performance. Mention should also be made of Zoe Saldana, who is delightful. (She also had roles in Drumline and Pirates of the Caribbean.)

Kutcher plays Simon Green, the affluent white boyfriend of Theresa (Saldana). He's about to make the trip to Cranford, New Jersey to meet her parents for the first time, but they don't know anything about the color of his skin. Theresa's dad, Percy (Mac), has done some homework - he has pulled Simon's credit report, and determined that it's "a thing of beauty." (That's before he quits his job to make a moral statement and joins the ranks of the unemployed.) Theresa's mom, Marilyn (Judith Scott), believes that Percy should keep his nose out of his daughter's business. The first meeting between Percy and Simon is awkward, and things go downhill from there.

Guess Who is a strange movie. When it works, it's a pleasant, undemanding comedy about mismatched individuals finding points of mutual understanding. Themes of racism and the difficulties inherent in interracial relationships are touched upon, but not in any great detail. Unfortunately, there are times when the film's approach becomes disappointingly sit-com-ish, with overly cute humor (that isn't terribly funny). Consider, for example, the scene with Percy and Simon sharing a bed. This seems like a low-rent version of the scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Anyone who recalls the memorable pillow moment between John Candy and Steve Martin will wince at what Guess Who has to offer.

One of the nice aspects of Guess Who is that the two central relationships - Simon and Theresa, and Percy and Marilyn - are credible. We come to care about the characters and root for them to be together. The playfulness in the Simon/Theresa relationship exemplifies young love, while the steady, knowing interaction between Percy and Marilyn represents the same feelings in a more mature stage.

It's impossible to discuss a movie like Guess Who and not mention race. The foundation of the film is, after all, based on a cultural bias that still exists against interracial marriages. The hostility of the '60s and '70s is gone, but an element of suspicion remains. Guess Who gets some of its comedic energy from the racial clash (such as a scene in which Simon tells "black jokes" at Percy's urging during a family dinner), but the relationship between a white guy and a black girl doesn't generate much drama (aside from a couple of throw-away lines during an argument). In fact, this is more of a "fish out of water" story (Simon spending time in unfamiliar territory). It wouldn't have taken more than a simple re-write for Guess Who to feature a young black actor instead of Kutcher.

Guess Who is a palatable film. It offers a few solid laughs and will provoke some smiles, but there's too much of a tendency to go for obvious, largely unfunny humor when something more subtle would have satisfied. It's a fairly typical, unremarkable comedy that is worth seeing primarily for the performances of Mac and Saldana. And it's probably best to temporarily forget memories of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, or you might end up with a mild case of indigestion.

Guess Who (United States, 2005)

Director: Kevin Rodney Sullivan
Cast: Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher, Zoe Saldana, Judith Scott, Kellee Stewart
Screenplay: David Ronn & Jay Scherick and Peter Tolan
Cinematography: Karl Walter Lindenlaub
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2005-03-30
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1