Director : Kevin Rodney Sullivan
Screenplay : David Ronn & Jay Scherick and Peter Tolan (story by David Ronn & Jay Scherick)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Bernie Mac (Percy), Ashton Kutcher (Simon Green), Zoe Saldana (Theresa), Judith Scott (Marilyn), Kellee Stewart (Keisha), RonReaco Lee (Reggie)
While the title and the basic scenario suggest a race-reversed comedic riff on Stanley Kramer's sincere 1967 dramedy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Guess Who's lineage is more directly traced to the nerve-wracked comedy of Meet the Parents (2001).
Both center on decent, earnest, hardworking young men trying in vain to impress a stern, uncompromising future father-in-law who will protect his daughter at all costs. Meet the Parents, and particularly its sequel, Meet the Fockers (2004), suggested that the beleaguered hero's Jewishness was an obstacle in his meshing with his girlfriend's uber-WASP family. Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher), the hero of Guess Who, isn't Jewish, but he is white, which doesn't exactly fit with the expectations of his black girlfriend's father, Percy (Bernie Mac). And, while Percy isn't a former CIA operative with hidden cameras ala Robert De Niro's Jack Burns, he doesn't think twice about using his position as a bank loan officer to pull up Simon's credit history before he even meets him. Both films also use an impending romantic ceremony to intensify the pressures (in Parents, it was a sister's wedding, here it's a 25th anniversary renewing of the parents' vows).
Thus, the race angle is not Guess Who's comedic foundation, but rather its jumping off point. Simon's whiteness isn't a problem, but rather a constant visual reminder of his uneasy place in trying to ingratiate himself into his girlfriend's family. Percy doesn't need to get over the fact that Simon is white so much as he needs to learn to trust Simon with his daughter (Zoe Saldana), something he isn't naturally disposed to do -- with anybody. Percy's wife, Marilyn (Judith Scott), enjoins him to "be nice" to the new boyfriend long before they learn he's white, thus Percy's overprotectiveness is simply part of his nature.
The comedy in Guess Who revolves largely around the intense discomfort felt by Simon, the flames of which are fanned by both his seeming inability to do anything right and Percy's completely unveiled distrust of him. On the face of it, Percy shouldn't have anything to worry about. After all, Simon is a successful Wall Street trader on the rise, although he has just quit his job, something he fails to tell his girlfriend about in one of those head-slapping decisions that you just know will come back to haunt him. The reason for Simon quitting is left vague until the end of the film, although it only takes about two seconds to figure out what it is, which takes some of the air out of the big revelation in the end.
Guess Who doesn't have any grand ambitions, socially or cinematically; its treatment of race resides comfortably at the sitcom level, where it's safe to laugh about difference and then console ourselves with the eventual inclusiveness you know is coming. Thus, it's not surprising that director Kevin Rodney Sullivan (How Stella Got Her Groove Back) makes such good use of his two main stars, both of whom made their names in the world of sitcoms. Bernie Mac essentially uses the same persona from his eponymous TV show, in which he plays a tough on the outside, ultimately soft on the inside patriarch who is constantly at odds with his own family. This allows him to be a jerk without coming off like one; you know it's all an elaborate ruse that's bound to collapse eventually. Ashton Kutcher uses some of the same dingbat mannerisms from That '70s Show, but instead of defining his character as vapid, they are used to emphasize his nervousness. Part of the joke about Simon is that he can be successful in the dog-eat-dog world of Wall Street, but is immediately reduced to fumbling prey once he finds himself in Percy's crosshairs.
There is something satisfying about seeing Percy and Simon finally making nice with each other, even though it comes about because both of their women leave them at the same time, essentially forcing them to team up to escape the romantic snares they've set for themselves. For all its emphasis on race, though, the only clear message in Guess Who is about gender: Black or white doesn't matter, it's ultimately the women who are in charge.
Copyright �2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright �2005 Sony Pictures Entertainment