Saturday, March 26, 2005

REVIEW: Guess Who

"Guess Who" presents us with a light family comedy that isn't great mostly because it doesn't make any effort to be so. On the one hand, that means that the film suffers from unrealized potential, but on the other hand it can't precisely be said to "fail" as a movie either. Instead what we have is a film content to be "okay," sporadically superior to (the impossible to avoid comparisons to) "Meet The Fockers" and certainly better than any film that began life as a remake of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" had any right being.

What it lacks is ambition, largely because what it has to begin with is a situation-comedy premise which, as goes the saying, "could write itself." For those who've missed the trailers: Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher) is a hot young stockbroker involved in an interracial relationship with a photographer (Zoe Saldana.) The story follows the pair as they head for the home of her parents (Bernie Mac and Judith Scott) for Simon's official introductions, with Simon feeling intensely on edge due to his in-laws to-be being as yet uninformed that their daughter is dating a white man. That both Kutcher and Mac are inhabiting characters identical to their usual "default" onscreen persona can tell you all you need to know about how the rest of this will play out.

It's essential to getting "into" the film, I think, to understand that Mac's character of Percy (played by Mac with precisely the swagger and hard-won self-confidence of a man who had to go through adolesence with the name "Percy,") is not specifically a racist: He's a feircely overprotective father who's looking for any excuse to test the mettle of his daughter's boyfriend, and Kutcher's whiteness provides him with a constant wellspring of ways to do so. If the prospect of his daughter dating outside her race really bothers Percy on any kind of deeper level, it's one that never comes to play in the film. At one point, after discovering that the hotel he's being put up in as a "change of plans" had been booked weeks in advance, Simon asks: "You knew you were going to throw me out a week ago?" To which Percy matter-of-factly responds: "I knew I was gonna throw you out twenty-four years ago when the doctor told me it was a girl."

The interesting surprise here is that, while the subject of race seems to always be on the minds of certain characters, the setup is engineered thusly that it seems seldom to occur to the film itself: Whereas the culture-clash of black and white America was the very forefront of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "Guess Who" is insistent that the world of it's predecessor is long gone. Were that as true as the film would like to believe, it would render a "races flipped" version entirely irrelevant (really, wouldn't a "true" modernization of this premise involve the daughter bringing home another woman?) but nevermind that. The point is, the original film criticized the racial views of it's characters, whereas this new incarnation criticizes it's characters for having racial views.

Unless this is the first review you are reading, you've by now heard that the film's funniest scene is the "family dinner" sequence. This is true, but what many are missing is that the reason the scene is the film's funniest is because it's also the film's most honest. Percy, a master of subtle psychological bullying, goads Simon into telling some "black jokes" over dinner. Instantly, we all know how this is destined to go, don't we? The first few jokes go over surprisingly well, until Simon inevitably gets a little too loose and tells one that offends everybody. That's what happens, yes, but the devil is in the details: The film doesn't just randomly assign a joke to be the one that goes to far, it's chosen very carefully one that is markedly different from the others on a very specific current. In this case, it's a fine but visible line between harmless and hurtful, and while Simon was certainly "led" into crossing it the point is he did cross it.

When "Guess Who" is running with this material, the awkward interplay between a man convinced that his girlfriend's father is out to get him and a father only too happy to oblige him, it has a good thing going. Unfortunately, it ends up devoting too much time to less fully-formed subplots: Percy's fascination with Nascar racing, preparations for an anniversary party, the genre-required "all the womenfolk get together and get hammered" scene, Percy's contentious relationship with a "metrosexual" party-planner and Simon keeping some sort of secret about work from everyone (which eventually pays off very well but not well enough to excuse how dull the "mystery" was otherwise.) The film wisely relegates these lesser elements to third-act plot-complications, which gives the character-comedy middle-act plenty of helpful breathing room but results in a mis-paced and overloaded final twenty minutes.

With a little more care and attention to the basics of pace, storytelling and structure, the elements are all here to have made a great and lasting comedy. Instead, we're left with a decent but unspectacular family film; better than it needs to be but far from achieving it's true potential. At most it's a noteworthy pre-Summer distraction, with several funny gags, a single inspired scene and a pair of accomplished lead performances. Mostly-reccomended.