The time may be right for a farcical remake of 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but I’m not sure Guess Who is it. The new movie, starring Bernie Mac as a grouchy black dad who disapproves of his daughter’s white boyfriend (Ashton Kutcher), gets hardly any comic mileage out of racial tension — the well-meaning original film got more laughs out of the discomfiture of liberal whites confronted with the prospect of a black son-in-law. If I were going to make a go-for-broke remake, I’d cast Dave Chappelle and Gwyneth Paltrow as the young lovers, and Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon as the white liberal parents. Switching the races just pretends that there’s no difference in dynamic between a black man marrying into a white family and a white man marrying into a black family.
Sidney Poitier proved (back there in the ’60s, when this could still come as a surprise to some viewers) that a black man could be respectable and eloquent. Ashton Kutcher just proves the easy stereotypes about goofy white guys. He and Bernie Mac have an occasionally funny combative rapport, but it’s essentially the same friction that Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro had in Meet the Parents. We have no reason to doubt Bernie Mac when he says he has no problem with Kutcher’s whiteness — he just senses that Kutcher is lying about something (and he’s right). Mac could be any disapproving father, and Kutcher could be any gawky guy who digs himself deeper the harder he tries to ingratiate himself.
He digs the deepest during the film’s dinner scene, in which Mac goads Kutcher into telling various “black jokes,” and everyone at the table laughs gamely until Kutcher tells one that crosses the line. None of the jokes are funny, though, not in the way that some racist jokes have a scabrous, anti-PC humor (the same way that, say, dead-baby jokes are funny because of their very wrongness). Here’s a comedy premised on racial unease, and it’s too timid to uncork actual racial humor. One can only imagine what Richard Pryor in his prime — or Dave Chappelle, whose sketch “The Niggar Family” is justly famous among his fans — would’ve done with the scene. Chappelle could’ve played Kutcher’s prospective brother-in-law, who tops Kutcher’s jokes with ever more ribald and appalling black jokes — “You ain’t shit, nigga; I’ll tell you some real jokes” — while Bernie Mac does a slow burn.
Most of the laughs come from Bernie Mac’s Percy Jones, a bull pawing the ground, reduced to a meek cat by his no-nonsense wife Marilyn (Judith Scott). His daughter Theresa (Zoë Saldaña), an artist, fell in love with young Wall Street tiger Simon (Kutcher) because, we’re told, opposites attract and she is what he isn’t. I didn’t see much else going on between them other than giggly, furtive moments of goofing around together. I can believe they’d get along great, but they don’t look at each other with anything like the adoration with which Sidney Poitier regarded Katharine Houghton and vice versa, or, for that matter, the exasperated but deep love between Percy and Marilyn. Kutcher is simply too lightweight to communicate love, and Zoë Saldaña is a rather dull actress; a better fit might have been the funky Kellee Stewart, who plays Theresa’s sister Keisha, palpably enjoying the development that whatever she does, it won’t be as bad as when Theresa brought home a white boy.
Does it matter? “Oh, it’s gonna matter,” pronounces the couple’s black cabbie — but it really doesn’t, not in this movie, where Percy Jones has no prejudice to get over. His suspicion of Simon might make better sense if we’d been told that Percy had gotten shafted by white guys in business, or been kept from promotion, or suffered some sort of racist treatment; but we hear about nothing of the sort. Percy does have a different kind of prejudice, unquestioned by the movie itself; the mincing coordinator of Percy and Marilyn’s anniversary party (Robert Curtis Brown) is, it turns out, a metrosexual and married man, but Percy continues to doubt the man’s sexuality, blustering about taking his pants off in front of him. A lot of straight men may not have a problem with gays in the abstract, but will still react viscerally when confronted with actual gayness, or suspected gayness. Which raises a premise for a much more relevant-to-these-times version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: What if Theresa brought home a white girl?