Guess Who

(2005) ** 1/2 Pg-13
97 min. Columbia Pictures. Directors: Kevin Rodney Sullivan, Kevin Rodney. Cast: Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher, Zoe Saldana, Judith Scott, Hal Williams.

There's no getting around the fact that Guess Who, whose title evokes Stanley Kramer's 1967 seriocomic race drama Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, more closely resembles Meet the Parents crossed with Father of the Bride. Here again are the overprotective, prospective father-in-law and his level wife; there again is the sweet young couple waylaid by the young man's sad-sack bad luck. But the schadenfreude workout "bump bump bump"s its way along winningly enough to plant a smile and tend it for a good ninety minutes.

Funnyman Bernie Mac (Mr. 3000) plays Percy Jones, a loan officer who brought up his daughter Theresa (Zoe Saldana) to believe in racial equality. "Five seconds is all I need," he says of sizing up Theresa's boyfriend, but he wasn't expecting her to bring home lanky white boy Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher). Hijinks ensue, most of them well-worn (Dad sleeps alongside Simon, for example, to make sure there's no hanky-panky during the weekend visit). But the screenplay tweaks the underlying formula by occasionally (and too briefly) sharpening a serious edge: the state of American race relations.

Obviously, much has changed since 1967, but it would be false to assume that long-held prejudices are now irrelevant. Swapping race (38 years ago, Sidney Poitier was the eye-raising dinner guest of white parents) reflects the passage of time, and the quibbling that bubbles up over what everyone keeps insisting is a non-issue satirizes our tendency to pretend the race issue has been effectively buried. In one scene, Percy goads Simon into telling "black jokes" he's heard, supposedly to prove that they've lost their ability to crawl under the skin. Bad idea.

Expert comedy writer Peter Tolan (Analyze This) polished the workmanlike original script of David Ronn & Jay Scherick. Even the romantic-comedy machinery makes an effort here, with sweet scenes between the young lovers and, eventually, the legitimate grievances that come between them, as well as Percy and his wife Marilyn (Judith Scott). When the men land in the doghouse (the man is always wrong in a romantic comedy), they bond.

It's also at this turning point that the objectives flip-flop. Instead of Simon trying to convince Percy of his character, with Theresa's help, Simon winds up trying to convince his girlfriend of his trustworthiness, with Percy's help. Guess Who is a warm movie that's well cast and funny enough as it works through passive-aggressiveness to aggressive-aggressiveness and finally the acceptance of family (whoops--did I give it away?).

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