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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ten Years Later... Guess Who (2005)

On this day in 2005

Though never quite as daring as it likes to give itself credit for, Stanley Kramer's 1967 film Guess Who's Coming To Dinner is nevertheless considered a landmark Hollywood movie, one which gently spoon-fed issues of racism and race relations to a white audience at a time when social/political tensions were at a particular high and when other films such as In The Heat of the Night (which was nominated alongside Guess Who's Coming To Dinner for Best Picture and won) offered a more blistering and hard-edged picture of the times. Seen today, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner seems quaint and not a little bit problematic, but you can at least argue that it had a point it was trying to make and it had its heart in the right place even if it expressed that in ways that are sometimes misguided. The point of the 2005 loose remake Guess Who is anyone's guess, given that though its entire premise is to invert the "white woman brings a black man home to meet her parents" story of the first, it remains awfully shy about actually addressing issues of race save for a few jokes tossed in here and there to remind the audience that it is allegedly a remake of that earlier film.

The Story

Theresa (Zoe Saldana) and Simon (Ashton Kutcher) have just become engaged and are taking a trip to visit her parents, Percy (Bernie Mac) and Marilyn (Judith Scott), whom Simon will be meeting for the first time. Unbeknownst to Simon until they've just about arrived at Theresa's parents' home, Theresa has not informed Percy and Marilyn that Simon is white, which comes as a shock to them, albeit one which isn't really that big a deal. A bigger deal, at least to Percy, is the idea of this man (or any man) defiling his beloved daughter which leads him to take extreme measures to ensure that no funny business will happen under his roof, and which drives him to uncover the secret that he's sure (correctly, it turns out) that Simon is keeping and use it to put a wedge between Simon and Theresa. The unintended consequence of this is that Percy ends up driving a wedge into his own marriage, leaving both him and Simon scrambling to put the pieces back together.

The View From 2005

The Good: "In 38 years, Guess Who will probably seem as dated as [Guess Who's Coming To Dinner] seems today, but in the meantime this is a winning comedy, with solid comic performances from Bernie Mac as the father of a young black woman who shows up on his doorstep with a white guy, and from Ashton Kutcher, as the white guy. By reversing the races of the 1967 movie, Guess Who takes what still might have been a culturally loaded situation and automatically releases it into a more relaxed mode." - Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

The Bad: "The requisite happy ending includes a corny dance sequence and an even tackier, but thankfully short, rendering of Lou Rawls' You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine by Kutcher. Then there is the obligatory applause by those gathered nearby when the couple kiss. Would any romantic comedy be complete without that cliché? This feeble comedy ranks about an 11 on the yawn-o-meter." - Claudia Puig, USA Today

The View From 2015

I'm not really sure where to start with Guess Who, a comedy which isn't ever really very funny, and a film which presents itself as offering one kind of social commentary when actually it really turns on a different, safer and more tired, kind of social commentary. Although it makes a few broad sweeps towards being about race, primarily in the form of some blunt and truly cringeworthy moments such as when Simon is goaded into telling a few "black jokes" at the dinner table until he finally goes to far or an instance where he's fighting with Theresa and Percy and refers to them as "you people," Guess Who is actually just your standard issue overprotective father comedy that inevitably ends in a soft battle of the sexes and a happy ending. A lot of reviews from 2005 compared Guess Who with Meet the Parents and it does, in fact, feel more like an interracial remake of that film than a race reversed version of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Although the cab driver who is bringing Theresa and Simon to her parents' home assures them that "it's going to matter" as they're fighting over whether or not her parents will care that Simon is white, nothing in the film really backs that up. Percy is surprised by Simon and takes an immediate dislike to him, but it's also made clear that he would have disliked any guy that Theresa brought home. Almost immediately Percy finds a pretense to insist that Simon stay at a hotel instead of the house, and when they arrive at the hotel Percy reveals that he made the reservation weeks ago when Theresa told him she was bringing her boyfriend to meet them. Since Percy was under the impression that Theresa's boyfriend was black until he laid eyes on Simon, it follows that his issue isn't racism. The issue is the old, tired, sexist song and dance about a father who feels it is his duty to protect his daughter from her own choices. This is a story about gender, not race, and the fact that the film literally ends with Simon and Percy banding together to deliver themselves to the judgment of Theresa and Marilyn and the gang of angry women they've surrounded themselves with confirms that.

In aligning itself with Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, I'm guessing that the marketing team behind Guess Who was simply trying to differentiate the film from other, similarly premised movies and trying to give it the sense of having an (undeserved) air of importance. Guess Who really has little in common with the film from which its takes half a name since, for all its flaws and no matter how dated it seems today, Kramer's film actually was attempting to directly address a heated social issue. Guess Who is not doing that, and it's hardly surprising that it's not doing that because as a society we've only become more timid about talking about race since the first film came out. Guess Who is the sort of film that fits snugly into the fictitious idea of a "post racial" society where we're all in this together and that our differences exist only in our own heads and can be easily overcome. This isn't really reflective of reality, but it's the only way that the predominantly white executives who make Hollywood films, and the predominantly white audiences to whom Hollywood films are marketed, are comfortable acknowledging the issue of racism, with it being something that flows in both directions between white people and black people, rather than being something that is perpetuated against black people (and, of course, other people of color) by a society that is ordered to ensure that institutionalized power remains with white people. Every time Guess Who takes a step towards bringing the story back to race, usually via an extremely lame joke, it didn't make me think of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner or racism as a social issue, it made me think of the bit from Louis C.K. about white privilege. So Bernie Mac is kind of mean to Ashton Kutcher from time to time; the latter still has the deck stacked in his favor to have every advantage in the world, whereas Sidney Poitier's character in the original basically had to be a saint just to get his foot in the door.

As a work of social commentary, Guess Who never even really tries to get off the ground. As a comedy, it mostly just hangs limply, drifting from one supposedly comic circumstance to another. Some moments do hit simply because Mac was an extremely talented comic who could make grumpiness commensurate with charm, but a lot of the comedy just falls flat and there's nothing really compelling about the relationship between Simon and Theresa (and, by extension, the relationship between Simon and Percy) to fill that void. Theresa, though played by Saldana with plenty of energy, emerges as a blank because the film never takes any time to develop her as a personality in her own right; she is at all times "Simon's fiancee" or "Percy's daughter." She's not a really an actual character which means that the finale is basically meaningless because how are you supposed to care whether Simon and Theresa live happily ever after when Theresa barely even exists? Ironically, this is actually one of the things that Guess Who and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner actually have in common because the daughter in the original wasn't much more than cardboard cutout of a character either, but that's hardly to Guess Who's credit. Although it was actually a decent-sized hit in 2005 (not a blockbuster by any means, but a solid performer for a smaller budgeted film), there's nothing really memorable about Guess Who, nothing which makes it seem timely let alone timeless, and nothing about it which really makes it seem like a film that ever had to be made. While Guess Who's Coming To Dinner may seem dated now, Guess Who just seems pointless, another throwaway comedy that never rises to the talents of its star (I'm talking about Mac here, not Kutcher, for the record) and offers nothing particularly new or noteworthy. Not now, not ten years ago.


Dell said...

You hit the nail on the head. This movie is completely forgettable and has far more in common with Meet the Parents than the film it's named for.

Norma Desmond said...

Yeah, it's a waste of a premise.