On paper, it reads like a perfect disaster: the director of How Stella Got Her Groove Back (Kevin Rodney Sullivan) and writers of I Spy and National Security (David Ronn and Jay Scherick) remaking director Stanley Kramer and writer William Rose’s solemnly hollow and glibly provocative 1967 Oscar winner, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, starring Bernie Mac in Spencer Tracy’s role and Ashton Kutcher as his would-be son-in-law, a part originated by Sidney Poitier. Guess Who has all the makings of an episode of Kutcher’s MTV series Punk’d. To say it’s better than it has any right to be gives the original too much credit and the remake not enough.
Kramer’s film, which was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won two (for Rose’s original screenplay and Katharine Hepburn’s understanding mother), exists now as a quaint relic. It retains our goodwill because of its performers. (It would be Tracy’s final screen appearance.) But the movie is flawed at best and dunderheaded at worst, a soapbox speech belching tiny bubbles.
Guess Who can’t be bothered with the original’s pretentiousness and self-righteousness. It doesn’t even bother with jokes part of the time, allowing itself room to breathe at a time when most big-screen comedies gasp for air in search of the big nyuck-nyuck that never knock-knocks on the door. The characters here aren’t reduced to caricatures, which is a giant step in the right direction for Kutcher, whose stockbroker Simon Green isn’t made to look a jackass, à la Ben Stiller’s male nurse in Meet the Parents.
The premise is hackneyed, the situations are numbingly prosaic, and the jokes are borrowed and frayed. The gag in which Bernie Mac, playing overbearing pops Percy, mistakes the African-American cab driver for his future son-in-law and the white boy with the luggage as the cabbie, is as old as the sitcom form itself. But within that familiar framework reside some likable characters who dislike each other not because of race but because they simply do not trust each other. Mac, as a bank loan officer, has good reason to be suspicious of Simon: The young man has quit his job without telling his fiancée, Theresa (Drumline‘s Zöe Saldaña), for reasons explained only during the movie’s clumsy final moments. Percy’s not terribly pleased that his daughter’s boyfriend is white, but he’s more upset that he’s hiding something.
The screenwriters, in-cluding The Larry Sanders Show‘s Peter Tolan, refuse to make Simon a clumsy dolt. The closest he comes to looking like an idiot is during a dinner-table scene at which Percy dares him to tell “black jokes,” most of which are benign until he goes a step too far. (“Where do white people come up with all those black jokes?” Percy asks his patient, beautiful wife, Marilyn, played by Judith Scott. “They take a class?”) But his recovery is pitch-perfect, the irritated mien of a man double-dared by a bully.
Guess Who has a dream: to make $30 million at the box office on opening weekend. But it has heart and, yes, a little soul, too. There are no villains here, no bad guys to be humiliated and sent packing, only people trying to protect their own.