Guess what? One would never imagine that an updating of Stanley Kramer’s deadly earnest “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” remade as a rowdy comedy (just think of a cross between it and “Meet the Parents”), would have much chance of working. Nor that a pairing of Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher in a script devised by the guys who wrote the awful “National Security” and “Serving Sara” could possibly be worth seeing. But confounding all expectations, the combination of these two unlikely elements makes for a surprisingly amusing 97 minutes in “Guess Who.” Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s movie is hardly a masterpiece: it’s episodic and predictable, and as many of its gags miss as hit home. But it delivers more smiles than most of Hollywood’s alleged comedies, and an occasional big laugh, too.
There isn’t much to the story. Theresa Jones (Zoe Soldana) brings her boyfriend Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher), a successful but slightly goofy broker, from New York City to meet her parents at their suburban home. Percy Jones (Bernie Mac), a bank loan officer, and his wife Marilyn (Judith Scott) are planning a big weekend celebration of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, during which they’re going to renew their vows, and Theresa and Simon intend to announce their engagement at the party. But Theresa has failed to inform them that her boyfriend’s white, and that’s only one of the things that bothers Percy about him–another is that the old man finds out that the guy’s no longer with his famous New York firm and hasn’t told Theresa he’s without a job. I don’t think I’ll be spoiling things overmuch by letting you know that after a whole bevy of plot complications and slapstick episodes, the two men finally bond, especially after Percy comes to realize why klutzy but lovable Simon quit his position with his former firm.
This skeleton of a plot is no more substantial that it was in “Dinner” or “Parents,” and the material used to flesh it out is hardly remarkable. Bits about Percy and Simon sleeping together (the older man wants to make sure there’s no hanky-panky in the bedroom) or trying to outdo one another on a go-car rink (after Simon’s tried to impress his would-be in-law with a dumb lie about once having driven in NASCAR) are essentially sketches linked together almost as though the were parts of a vaudeville show. The movie overuses pop tunes to make plot points and serve as transitional devices–a tired form of shorthand that’s found more and more in American pictures. And the secondary characters–Percy’s grumpy father (Hal Williams), Theresa’s flippant sister (Kellee Stewart), Percy’s obsequious assistant (RonReaco Lee), and the over-zealous party planner (Robert Curtis Brown) hired by the Joneses–are pretty much stock figures, although they get their share of laughs. One could also observe that the talents of Soldana and Scott are underused; they’re truly the “straight men” of the movie, and even in the romantic scenes between the two couples, the emphasis is on giving the guys the opportunity to do their shtick.
But it’s hard to complain overmuch because both Mac and Kutcher strut their stuff to good effect. The former has the gruffly lovable dad down pat, and easily carries the picture. By contrast Kutcher tones down the dumb dude persona he’s famous for a notch and comes across as an amiable, likable fellow, gangly and clumsy to be sure but not a complete dolt. Both stars manage to humanize characters that could have just been cardboard cliches, and by the close they make you feel that there’s genuine affection between them. And they manage to pull off bits that one might expect to fall embarrassingly flat–like a dinner scene at which Percy presses Simon to tell some black jokes. (It helps that the jokes are pretty funny.) Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s direction is a mite flaccid at times, but though a bit more energy wouldn’t have been amiss (especially in the closing reel), he gets by. On the purely visual level the picture is okay but unexceptional.
So “Guess Who” is no classic, but Mac and Kutcher prove a surprisingly winning team, and considering today’s comedies, you could do a lot worse. But please: if it takes off, don’t treat us to a sequel introducing Simon’s mother and father. We wouldn’t want another case in which a moderately amusing flick like “Meet the Parents” is followed by an appalling disaster along the lines of “Meet the Fockers.”