There is fascinating potential in Guess Who, but the movie is too busy trying to emulate every Hollywood romantic comedy since 1995 to see it. There are moments that work so well, scenes of such surprising insight, that when the movie bogs down in its impossibly trite plot, you want to shout at the screen. In a movie as suffused with tension — racial, interpersonal, what have you — as this one, is it really necessary for the dramatic thrust to consist of the protagonist lying to his girlfriend about quitting his job? Is that even remotely the point?
But maybe I’m approaching Guess Who in the wrong way. My instinctive reaction was to see it as a fundamentally thoughtful film undercut at every turn by someone’s stubborn insistence on rom-com conventions. A more productive way of looking at it, perhaps, is as an idiotic mid-March throwaway with occasional, and perhaps accidental, flashes of higher brain function. That way, the ultimate reaction is one of mild gratefulness rather than disappointment and disgust. Just a thought.
Anyway, the movie stars Ashton Kutcher as Simon Green, a lily-white Wall Street hotshot about to meet his black fiancee’s parents for the first time. Little does he know that his sweetheart (Zoe Saldana) hasn’t told her family that she will be bringing home a white boyfriend, and after being mistaken for a taxi driver, he is greeted with “Oh my God, are we being audited?” I like the way the movie handles her rationale for keeping mum — she “didn’t think it would matter,” she says, but she clearly anticipated her dad’s (Bernie Mac) reaction, suggesting that she was as reluctant to confront the issue as poor Simon.
The film is far from hard-hitting commentary, but it does make attempts to deal with its subject matter. The issue isn’t even racism, really, but simple racial tension left over from the past. In that sense, Guess Who is rather optimistic — both “sides” know that the other is not bigoted, or bad, or even fundamentally different, but are merely forced to go through the motions because of the lingering stereotypes. It is telling, I suppose, that the worst race-related sin committed during the course of the film is accusing someone of being racist.
Surprisingly enough, there are points where even the protagonists’ relationship strife is handled with some degree of tact and elegance. There is one particular confrontation that goes in few of the directions you would expect it to, and the dialogue threatens to sparkle, though it is immediately undercut by the characters looking wistful. The comic set pieces, which include Kutcher sleeping in the same bed with Bernie Mac and challenging him to a go-kart race, meet with varying success — the film is clearly more at home with wordplay than it is with physical comedy. Mac is threatening to wear out his “angry black man” calling card, though I am more than willing to put his scenes in Bad Santa on infinite replay.
The problem is the primary sub-plot concerning Simon’s job loss and attempts to conceal same. We have seen this a million times before, and it has an inevitable trajectory; the girlfriend and the father must find out, of course, and fighting must ensue, followed quickly by reconciliation. This is so obvious, and so boring, that when it becomes clear that the last act will consist of nothing else, depression threatens to set in. There is enough going on here for such flagrant appeal to inane convention to be extremely disappointing.
The title Guess Who is obviously a play on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the 1967 Sidney Poitier classic, but it has more in common with Meet the Parents. It’s funny enough, and surprisingly well-written in individual scenes, but why, in the end, does it strive for so little?