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Guess Who

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/02/05 15:33:34

"Not, it seems, based on the classic Milton Bradley guessing game."
1 stars (Sucks)

So “Guess Who” presents itself as a kooky modern day goof on the racial drama “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.” Except I don’t recall the older film being quite this mean-spirited. Or was it? Was there ever a scene in which Spencer Tracy forced Sidney Poitier to tell a bunch of racist jokes? No? OK, so it’s not just me.

The new film, spinning the race angle so that now Ashton Kutcher star as the daughter’s boyfriend and Bernie Mac plays the prejudiced dad, is not entirely a parody of Stanley Kramer’s 1968 message movie (which, it needs to be said, has not aged well at all); it only uses the reverse-race bit as a launching point. But a launch to where, you ask? To Clichétown, population: this movie. But before it gets there, it must get all its racial stuff out of the way.

Things play out as we expect, for a while: Dad and Mom (Judith Scott) are planning for a big twenty-fifth anniversary celebration; Daughter (Zoe Saldana) brings home Dopey White Boy; the fact that nobody told Dad that Dopey White Boy was white causes some uneasy tension. Jokes unfold predictably (Dad thinks the black cab driver is the boyfriend, Dad walks in on Daughter and Dopey White Boy playing with lingerie, etc.), and we yawn a bit, waiting for things to pick up. This is Bernie Mac, after all. Things should be picking up.

And then comes the creepiness. Dinner conversation turns to racial conversation, something about how refusing to tell a racial joke only empowers the joke. (Huh?) Which then leads to the most ill-conceived comedy set piece I’ve seen in years, in which Ashton Kutcher tells a bunch of “black guy” jokes to Bernie Mac, who keeps demanding he tell another. (“What do you call a hundred black guys buried up to their necks? Afro-turf!” Har.) The family laughs at first, but then it just keeps going, the “Meet the Parents” moment coming when Dopey White Boy tells one joke too many, and Black Grandpa gets pissed.

The whole thing, in fact, has a limp “Meet the Parents” vibe, in which we’re supposed to think all these moments of Ashton Kutcher getting embarrassed by Bernie Mac are hilarious. They’re not, really. Many of them are downright mean - Dad, an upscale loan officer, manages to mangle Dopey White Boy’s credit rating, all out of spite. Nice. The rest of this line comes in the form of the usual cheap humiliation (Dad insists on sharing a bed with Dopey White Boy in order to prevent shenanigans with his Daughter; Dopey White Boy builds a mountain of lies about his knowing a NASCAR driver; and on, and on, and on) that usually only get shown on movie screens when Ben Stiller is involved.

Things come to a head in a weak, weak, weak bit in which the two stars race each other on go-karts, hilarity ensuing, of course. It’s one of those strained comedy set-ups that I never quite get. Do people out there really think that our idea of funny is sitting around and watching Ashton Kutcher mug to the camera while crashing his go-kart, wacky music blaring on the soundtrack? It’s all way too forced in that “oh, this’ll get a cheap laugh” manner that Hollywood does best. A rule: any time you see the movie’s stars racing in go-karts, it’s because the script ran out of funny things to do.

But then, the afternoon bus to Clichétown rolls in, picks up the cast and crew, and the movie takes a major change in direction. It was announced that “Guess Who” would not be entirely about race, and the filmmakers live up to their word. Halfway through, most racial comedy/commentary is dropped entirely, switching instead to a standard romantic comedy in which Dad bungles things with Mom, Dopey White Boy bungles things with Daughter, and instead of simply talking things over (which, as always, would erase any confusion over such things and therefore instantly end the movie), there’s a bunch of “why did you say this” and “why did you do that” and such, all leading up to the big finish in which everybody realizes what fools they’ve been and how much they love coming back into each others’ lives and such. To pad it out, there’s also some emptiness about Dopey White Boy quitting his job (without telling anyone, etc., etc.), and maybe he’s found a new business plan, or something.

It’s all substandard romantic comedy fare, and none of it ever clicks. The script, by David Ronn, Jay Scherick, and Peter Tolan, refuses to give us anyone worth watching; either we’re stuck with the unpleasantness of grumpy, conniving Dad and whiny, cloying Dopey White Boy, or we’re stuck with the female characters, Mom and Daughter, both of whom feel like nondescript plot pawns than characters; the job of women here is to roll their eyes and then get out of the way so the boys can do their funny stuff. Thing is, the “funny stuff” is so strained and feeble that not even the talented, charismatic Mac can rescue it.

It all ends, by the way, with a big song and dance, the kind that has the cast gather ’round and shake it for the audience, leaving them with a song stuck in their head and a smile on their faces. It’s the same sort of thing that “Hitch” had over its closing credits. I gave that movie a pass, because even though it ended on such a sour note, everything before it was likable enough and entertaining enough to get us through. In “Guess Who,” however, it’s merely the capper on a long string of bad jokes and cheap writing. It’s a sign of the filmmakers begging us one last time to please have some fun. A rule: If the movie has to beg for it, then odds are good that it wasn’t fun in the first place.

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