Guess Who

on March 25, 2005 by Wade Major
There's some very clever marketing going on with the "Guess Who" campaign, the title of which clearly recalls Stanley Kramer's landmark 1967 Oscar-winner (and final Hepburn/Tracy pairing) "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" while the one-sheet, featuring stars Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher awkwardly sidled up on a couch, emulates "Meet the Parents." As schizophrenic as that may sound, that's precisely the pedigree that this surprisingly smart, albeit formulaic, comedy seeks to claim.

Evidencing that things have, indeed, changed since 1967, although not in the way that "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" anticipated, "Guess Who" centers not on a white father struggling to reconcile his stated liberalism with his daughter's engagement to an eloquent, sophisticated black man, but with a black man (Bernie Mac) who can't get used to the fact that his daughter (Zoe Saldana) just brought home Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher's Simon, however, is a small step up from the actor's usual goofball -- a would-be Wall Street up-and-comer if not for the fact that he just lost his up-and-coming Wall Street job. Unfortunately, it's going to take a lot to keep that secret from Mac's overprotective Percy, a shrewd and suspicious sort with keen instincts honed from years as a bank loan officer.

Despite the fact that it practically lifts entire scenes from "Meet the Parents," "Guess Who" never seems objectionably derivative simply because the chemistry between Mac and Kutcher is so appealing. Though they don't quite measure up to Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro, they aren't far off, adding much-needed levity to an otherwise serious premise. Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan ("Barbershop 2" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back") has performed that kind of balancing act before, so it's no surprise he manages the task just as effortlessly here. What is surprising is how much added emotional depth the film is able to generate thanks to the wonderful Zoe Saldana. A rising star in her own right, Saldana's Theresa is everything that Katharine Houghton (niece to Katharine Hepburn) was not in the original "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?", which is to say... talented. Quite nearly upstaging Kutcher and Mac on several occasions, Saldana helps give the film at least a veneer of reality.

What's most striking about the contrast between "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" and "Guess Who" is that four decades of racial and social progress have yielded a very different landscape than the original film sought to encourage. Where Sidney Poitier represented the antithesis of the stereotypical angry black man of the '60s, Ashton Kutcher is the stereotypical essence of today's twentysomething white "dude." It is, in a real sense, a more honest film than its precursor which, like many of director Kramer's pictures, lectured audiences with idealistic dreams for the future. "Guess Who" simply embraces the reality of what is possible in the present. And lest anyone think that evaluation unfair, simply consider what "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" might have been if instead of Sidney Poitier, Houghton had brought home Bernie Mac. Starring Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher, Zoe Saldana and Judith Scott. Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan. Written by David Ronn & Jay Scherick and Peter Tolan. Produced by Jenno Topping, Erwin Stoff and Jason Goldberg. A Columbia release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for sex-related humor. Running time: 105 min

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