Thursday, March 24, 2005

Hollywood occasionally throws us a curve by remaking a film for the right reasons.Case in point: “Guess Who,” an update of the 1967 cultural milestone “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” That Oscar-winning social drama featured a prim white woman bringing home a black suitor (Sidney Poitier) to meet her parents.

Now, director Kevin Rodney Sullivan (“Barbershop 2”) pulls a racial switcheroo, casting pasty white Ashton Kutcher as the one who must meet his black fiancee’s family.

So far, so very good, especially in casting Bernie Mac as the overprotective papa whose instincts, and subtle racism, tell him not to trust her daughter’s beau.

No one glowers as well as the Fox TV star.

But Mr. Sullivan and company content themselves with making “Guess Who” a conventional comedy. In the process, they repeatedly trip themselves up with contrived setups just when they’ve built some story momentum.

All but gone are the telling exchanges that gave the original its socially relevant oomph. We’re left with more laughs than your average romantic comedy but a nagging sense of an opportunity lost.

Mr. Kutcher’s Simon and Theresa (the luminous Zoe Saldana) are very much in love and dying to tell their families about their engagement. Theresa decides the best time to tell her folks is during their upcoming marriage vows renewal ceremony.

What she hasn’t told them is that her husband-to-be is white, something she naively believes won’t matter since they taught her never to judge people by their skin color.

Simon makes a poor first impression on his new in-laws. Mr. Mac’s Percy assumes the black taxi driver who brings the couple to his New Jersey home is the new boyfriend. It’s a smart set piece that wouldn’t have been credible in 1967, underlining a key justification for the remake.

Simon only makes things worse for himself when, in an effort to sound masculine, he concocts a ridiculous story about having worked for a NASCAR team and neglects to tell either Percy or his fiancee that he recently quit his high-profile job.

It’s up to Percy to explore why Simon rubs him the wrong way, but it’s a soul search that never lets him explore his own prejudices.

It’s a small sign of how the filmmakers can’t see beyond their gimmick that Simon keeps bemoaning how “huge” Percy is, even though Mr. Kutcher is among today’s taller leading men.

Taller doesn’t translate to better, sadly. Mr. Kutcher tries so hard to make Simon a lovable klutz that we’re aware of the stunt in nearly every scene. There’s no hiding the actor’s striking good looks, either, so forcing a nebbishy hair style on him only makes the masquerade all the more obvious.

Only late in the film, when Mr. Kutcher and Mr. Mac engage in an impromptu dance lesson, does the “That ‘70s Show” star let himself enjoy the moment. As do we.

“Guess Who” evades the expectations that come with remaking a film classic by turning the story into a farce in which race serves as little more than a comic premise.

What’s missing, beyond a leading man who understands the task before him, is a story that explores the nuances of race relations beyond some surface-level gags.


TITLE: “Guess Who”

RATING: PG:13 (Sexual situations and humor, coarse language and slapstick violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan. Screenplay by David Ronn, Jay Scherick and Peter Tolan.

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes




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