A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 105 mins.
2005, PG-13, 105 mins.
Percy: Bernie Mac / Simon Green:
Ashton Kutcher / Theresa: Zoe Saldana / Jason: Andy Morrow / Reggie: Ron Reaco Lee
Sydney: Sherri Shepherd / Diane: Amanda Tosch
You may or may not have vague memories of a certain 1967 Stanley Kramer film GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. If you don't, then allow me a small and modest opportunity to discuss it.
That movie detailed a story of a wealthy, upper class white husband and wife (played by two equally prosperous Hollywood legends of the time – Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) who are very pleased to hear word that their daughter (Katherine Houghton) is about to bring home her newly appointed fiancé. Tracy and Hepburn could not be any more pleased and can’t wait to meet the strapping and charming young man that they have both heard so much about. Little did they know that she brings home Sydney Pottier, and all levels of social awkwardness ensued.
Now, unless you’ve been living under a proverbial rock somewhere or have never watched a movie before, Pottier was, in fact, an African American. Okay, so the white daughter brought home a black man…big deal, right? Well, in context…yeah…it was a big deal. The film, if you look at it within its socio-political time frame, was scripted during the turbulent 60’s at the height of Civil Right’s era America where all forms of social protest on the part of blacks for equal rights were brewing. This was the time of both peaceful protest (with Martin Luther King Jr. leading the way) and violent “any means necessary protest" (led by Malcolm X) during which blacks fought for their completely justified rights to be treated as any other normal member of American culture. These were daring and troubling times.
Now, stop and consider how equally audacious, brave, inspired, and controversial a film like GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER was when it was first released in the late 60’s. The film ostensibly was one of those message melodramas with a sociological heartbeat – it was meant to examine and criticize societal norms of race and race relations of its time. Interracial marriages were not a common occurrence as they are, say, now in 2005, so the fact that a film had the will and tenacity to tackle such a contentious and highly divisive subject should be revered to a degree.
Okay, in hindsight, there should have not been too much for the affluent parents to be ashamed of in the first place (the Pottier character was an equally well-off doctor who lived in Switzerland, so this, in turn, smoothed over a series of probable roadblocks for the parents to stumble over). Nevertheless, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER is one of those great travelogue pictures of a different time and place that reveals certain bitter truths of its time. Certainly, things have changed in the last 38 years…right?
The new film – GUESS WHO – would argue a strong a vehement “no”. This new comedy should not be, at first glance, considered a staunch remake of the classic ’67 film, and anyone making that hasty assertion may find themselves being set up for some marginal disappointment. The film, more or less, appropriates the basic elements of the '67 film and creates a new parable all of its own. Yes, interracial marriages and coupling are far more common place today and are clearly not seen with the highly dubious and contentious eyes that they were in the 60’s, but stop and consider – I think it’s fair to assume that most parents, rather blindly and ignorantly, probably see their child marrying someone within the same race. Most parents, no matter how progressive minded, would be lying if they said they would not be surprised in the slightest in their son or daughter married outside of race. C’mon…let’s be realistic here.
GUESS WHO, much like its ’67 cousin, is about a young and well-to-do daughter who is bringing home her new fiancé to meet her parents. The father and mother seem overwhelmingly positive about the whole idea, and simply cannot wait to get a glimpse of their new future son-in-law. The man in question is fairly prosperous and has a great job which should, no doubt, greatly impress the new parents. Unfortunately, this situation throws an uncomfortable curveball for everyone involved. The parents and daughter, this time, are black and the prospective suitor is white.
GUESS WHO is a frank comedy by stating that, yes, not much has changed since the 1960’s. The parents, regardless of color or race, still display various forms of discomfort and painful unease around their daughter’s new boyfriend. What’s interesting about the new dynamic that GUESS WHO brings to the dinner table (no pun intended) is that now there is a level of awkwardness imposed on both sides. Not only is the father, played in a light-hearted and funny performance by Bernie Mac, turned off by the thought of his future in-law being white, but the son, played in an equally droll performance by Ashton Kutcher, also indirectly displays his trepidations about having a black man as a father-in-law.
Clearly, the basic issues that were explored in the 1967 film are not as powerful and revealing as they could ever be in a modern film. Yes, Mac and Kutcher are sincerely no Spencer Tracy and Sidney Pottier respectively. Yes, this new film seems to owe much more to the recent family comedies like MEET THE PARENTS than with Kramer’s original film. However, GUESS WHO is not quite the vapid and brainless comedy that you may think it is. The film is relentlessly predictable and follows all of the routine motions that a film of this sort does (is there any doubt that the father would eventually be won over by the young man?), not to mention that some of its moments of high hilarity are substandard in their TV sitcom mentality. Yet, the film is kind of sly, smart, and perceptive about its laughs, and it definitely does not shy away from any of the larger issues of interracial marriage, especially when the father is one angry black man who hates the thought of his little baby marrying a “cracker’.
Kutcher plays Simon Green in the film, a rich white kid with aspirations of becoming even bigger, especially after marrying the love of his life, Theresa (the wonderful Zoe Saldana). The two are about to make their way to her parent’s hometown in Cranford, New Jersey so he can meet them. The father, Percy (Mac) is a upper-class loan officer who has done some serious homework on the young man – he has gone to the trouble of pulling Simon’s credit report and sees it as “a thing of beauty”, which allows him to conclude that the man is perfect for his daughter. What he does not know is that Simon has just quit is job, is unemployed, and is most definitely a “cracker”.
Percy’s wife, Marilyn (Judith Smith) seems to be the realist of the household and tells Percy to mind his own business. Meanwhile, Simon begins to confess is own insecurities with meeting his future black in-laws. On the way there in a cab Theresa pleads with Simon to not worry and that there should be no problem at all with their marriage because race will not matter to her parents. The cabbie, a black man, truthfully and humorously interrupts them by saying “Trust me, it’ll matter.” Well, it sure seems to, especially when Percy mistakes the black cab driver to be the boyfriend and Simon to be the cab driver and subsequently tells Simon to take all of the bags into the house. Things go steadily downhill from there. Maybe this becomes clear when the younger daughter comes home, sees Simon, and quickly turns to her family and asks, "Gee, are we being audited?"
It’s very hard to adequately dissect this film without bringing in the issues of race and bigotry. The film supports a stance that anyone, regardless or color or ethnicity, is capable of being a racist. Is Percy a raging bigot? I don’t think so, but he definitely let’s Simon’s race immediately cloud his judgment. Well, Percy does have a right to be somewhat untrustworthy of Simon, especially when he discovers that he is unemployed and has not told Theresa. So, since Simon cannot, in his eyes, be trusted with Theresa in any way, Percy sure as hell is not going to trust him to sleep with her in the same bed in his house. To make matters more troubling, if not a bit embarrassing, Percy decides to sleep with Simon in his basement’s sofa bed so that his daughter will not be violated in anyway. This scene should have been funny, but it is not something that a film like PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES has not already done better (and funnier) in the past.
It is moments like these that don’t make the film work for me. Despite some obvious slapstick comedy and lame and force-fed sentiment, GUESS WHO still manages to enlighten the viewer on some tough truths about bigotry and intolerance. The film is much more perceptive and thoughtful with it’s humor than I would have expected. Yes, the sense of overall hostility that parents would have felt in the 60’s about an interracial marriage are gone (I don’t think Percy “hates” Simon), but the persistent vibe of suspicion taint’s Percy’s thoughts. A considerable amount of GUESS WHO’s comic ferocity, tension, and energy are at the expense of the uneasiness the characters have at many times with each other, particularly at the dinner table in one key scene.
Percy may be intelligent, but he is also cunning and ruthless in the way he sets up Simon for hidden little traps. One night at the dinner table things seem to go rather well until disaster strikes. No, not the type of disaster where a cat urinates on the father’s mother’s ashes like in MEET THE PARENTS, but…well...just hear me out. At the table Simon once recalls correcting someone at another dinner after they told an offensive joke about black people, sighting it as offensive and empowering racial intolerance. Percy, being a sharp and shrewd social chess player, asks Simon to provide the joke. The innocuous Simon, for some complete leap in logic, decides to tell the joke to the entire family, seeing that if he does not, it will, in turn, empower the joke. Yikes.
He tells the joke. “What do you call a dozen black people buried to their necks? Afo-turf.” The family loves the joke, and Percy asks Simon for another, to which he agrees. The second, “How do we know Adam and Eve weren't black? Ever try to get a rib away from a black man?" Again, the family bowls over with laughter. Percy, sensing his prey will fall, asks Simon to offer up more jokes. Well, Simon tells a few more that are winners, but then concludes with a joke that goes way, way too far. The family becomes instantly ashamed and offended. The final joke is not only unfunny, but also enormously racist. Simon is beside himself and later argues with Theresa that her father “dared him” and that he , to his own discredit, told a few jokes too many. Theresa correctly responds that the prudent decision for him would have been to not tell any whatsoever.
GUESS WHO works genuinely on these levels. I thought the film was sort of pedestrian in its setup and payoff, but the more endearing aspects that fell in-between intrigued me. Here’s a refreshing screen comedy that does not fall crushingly into a series of gross out gags and over-the-top performances that border on gross caricature. Bernie Mac, who can be gleefully exaggerated in his roles, dials down and plays a relatively grounded adult figure with a keen amount of suspicion on his mind (he is not the overtly antagonist and latently sociopathic figure that DeNiro’s father was in MEET THE PARENTS). Kutcher does the same and plays his role with the right balance of humility and insecurity. The dynamic between the two works, and the supporting performances by the mother and daughter are also tender and authentic. The players and their emotions in the film feel real and sincere, despite the obviousness of the film's story.
GUESS WHO, for what it’s worth, is categorically no GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, nor is it trying to be a stirring and enlightening cultural parable. It clearly is unable to match the 1967 film in terms of being a relative hotbed of contested issues because our racial climate of tolerance has simply changed. Yet, GUESS WHO spins a rather clever twist on a decade’s old tale that still manages to have both its heart in the right place while having the foresight to be edifying and sort of intelligent with its inherent comedy. At times it's a banal film with some rather witless soap opera elements, but underneath it all there are some nuggets of truth to its laughs. If you think one should never feel uncomfortable around a member of a different race anymore, GUESS WHO would disagree otherwise. When Simon and Percy drive down a street alone one night and the radio inadvertently starts playing "Ebony and Ivory", it sure is hard not to feel uncomfortable with them.