Kevin Rodney Sullivan | 101 mins | TV | 12 / PG-13
Readers may remember that I opened my Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner review with a joke about how the film might be ruined if its premise was being made today. Cue reactions along the lines of ho ho ho, wouldn’t it be dreadful, thank God that’s not happened, etc.
Except, as was helpfully pointed out to me on Twitter, it has.
Here, the situation is reversed: nice black girl brings home white guy to meet parents. White guy isn’t Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler, as I suggested, but Ashton Kutcher, who more or less falls into the same category. The family being visited is still rich, albeit black, but rather than Sidney Poitier’s Surprisingly Respectable black man, Kutcher is a recently-jobless white man. I’m sure there’s some further table-turning to be read into this, but, look, it’s a film starring Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher — it’s not going to be a race relations paean, is it?
Indeed, Guess Who is pretty much what you’d expect it to be. The plot isn’t a direct copy of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, preferring to take the gist of the concept and a few of the story beats and surround them with a bunch of Funny Situations. I won’t bother you with details; suffice to say, the film does manage the odd laugh or smile, increasingly so as it goes on (though this may be because I was getting increasingly inebriated, it’s a tough call). The ending is suitably lovey-dovey, sentimental, and, I think many would add, hogwash. Should you be a sucker for a (modern-style) rom-com it may well be up your street; most viewers need not apply.
Mac and Kutcher play the roles they always play— No, actually, in fairness, I can’t say that: I think I’ve only seen Mac in the three Ocean’s films and I can’t think of anything I’ve seen Kutcher in (was he in The Butterfly Effect, or was that someone else equally interchangeable?) So, they play the roles I’ve always assumed they play, which is at least as bad. Zoe Saldana, on the other hand, seems to have a magic ability to raise the quality of almost every scene she’s in — even Mac and, to a higher level, Kutcher benefit from her skills to inject some genuine emotion into a film otherwise dependent on familiar or predictable gags.
The race debate is cursory. Maybe that’s a good thing — one could argue it shouldn’t be allowed to be relevant today, even if it still is — but occasionally there’s the sense that the filmmakers are actually trying to do more with the issue. Suffice to say, they don’t succeed. The gap is filled with additional comic interludes and mishandled subplots — in the latter camp, Kutcher’s hunt for a new job, and issues with the father who abandoned him — but they do little to make up for it. They’re certainly not a direct replacement, but nor do they offer an adequate alternative, particularly as they go begging for any kind of relevant point.
One scene, in which Mac goads Kutcher into telling racist black jokes at the dinner table, comes close to tackling the awkwardness of the issue. It’s ceaselessly predictable, naturally, but it also makes overtures at the issue of whether these jokes are funny, racist, or both. Most of the rest, however, is “father doesn’t approve of daughter’s boyfriend” schtick that has nothing to do with race. It’s as recognisable from TV sitcoms — Friends did it with Bruce Willis, for just the first example that comes to mind — as it is from movies. Again, maybe ignoring the race factor here is a good thing; but if you’re going to foreground it in your concept and promotion, you ought to be dealing with it, not using it as a way in to familiar sequences.
Though it takes a while to settle in, Guess Who does seem to improve as it goes on. Even though it more or less abandons the race issue, and many of the setups are familiar, it has its moments. Still, it never hits comedic heights, and doesn’t even attempt serious dramatic ones, and it’s not even close to being a patch on the original. The pros aren’t enough to make the film worth your time, but at least they stop it being a total disaster.
Guess Who is on Film4 tomorrow, Friday 9th, at 6:55pm.
The inspiration for this, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is on BBC Two tomorrow (Sunday 3rd August 2014) at 2:40pm.