"Better than I thought it'd be," was the refrain repeated by those exiting the preview screening of Guess Who, which doesn't mean much -- freebie audiences expect nothing and usually receive it. But in this case, it neatly summed up the experience of catching Ashton Kutcher in a part once played by Sidney Poitier. On paper, of course, it reads like a perfect disaster: the director of How Stella Got Her Groove Back (Kevin Rodney Sullivan) and the 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 Kutcher as his would-be son-in-law. It 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 and their performances, and because it would be Tracy's final on-screen appearance; he died the year of its release. But the movie is flawed at best (Tracy must embrace Poitier before the latter boards a plane that very night) and dunderheaded at worst, a soapbox speech belching tiny bubbles. Everyone in the movie was so perfect -- especially Poitier as the United Nations do-gooder -- that its friction and tension had to be manufactured by the ticking of a clock. Its resolution, so misty-eyed it was soaking wet, was more than pedantic; it was pedestrian.
Guess Who can't be bothered with the original's pretentiousness and self-righteousness; why mess with imperfection, after all? It breaks no ground, but at least it doesn't bury itself beneath so much proselytizing and posing. 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 nyuk-nyuk 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, at least, whose stockbroker Simon Green isn't made to look a jackass or fool, à la Ben Stiller's male nurse in Meet the Parents (itself a Protestant-meet-Jewish remake of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Why, oh why, wasn't its sequel titled Guess Who's Coming to Seder?).
The premise is hackneyed, the situations are numbingly prosaic (there's another party being planned in the backyard, as in Meet the Parents and Father of the Bride, and another uncomfortable scene in a car involving songs punched up on the radio), and its 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 for the cabby, 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 -- a subject addressed with some prescience -- 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's quit his job without telling his fiancée, Theresa (Drumline's Zoë 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 even more upset that he's clearly hiding something.
Guess Who stumbles and crashes in spots, when it tries too hard to please -- during, say, a go-cart race when Percy tries to run Simon off the road. But Simon is treated with some care by the screenwriters, including The Larry Sanders Show's Peter Tolan, who refuse to make him 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 'til 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.
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Like the original, Guess Who is fluff that's more bank statement than social statement; it has a dream, all right: to make $30 million at the box office on opening weekend. But it has heart and, yes, a little soul, too. Particularly well-handled is a scene staged at the cozy home of Marilyn's sister, where their girlfriends have convened for a night and day of drinking and eating after Marilyn and Theresa ditch their obdurate partners for a little cooling off (and going off). Like many scenes here, it feels impressively real -- a scene from a home movie, sans laugh track. Even more impressive is the fact that everyone talks to each other, not at; you buy these relationships, which goes a long way. Simon, who matter-of-factly reveals early on that he's the son of a single mother who worked three jobs after her husband ditched the family, even sympathizes with Percy, recognizing he's less a tormentor than a protective, loving father. There are no villains here, no bad guys to be humiliated and sent packing, only people trying to protect their own.