Quick consumer tip:
You can tell a lot about a comedy from its dinner table scenes. And most decent comedies, of course, tend to include a dinner table scene; if you re in college, say, and headed home for Easter weekend, you ll soon learn why: Comedy, at its core, is pain, discomfort, and the definition of discomfort is sharing a civilized meal with people who, though you may love, drive you insane.
Laughs come later.
Add a guest who rubs you the wrong way, one who simply does not mesh with, uh, your domestic dynamics, and the stakes increase.
There s a reason Meet the Fockers, a not-particularly smart comedy with one great dinner table scene, recently became the highest-grossing comedy of all time ($498 million, worldwide).
I was not a huge fan of Meet the Parents, either, but I fondly remember Ben Stiller, during an uncomfortable dinner with his future in-laws, inexplicably lying to Robert DeNiro that he milked cats on his family s farmstead.
A farm in, um, um ... Detroit?
Guess Who, the new comedy starring Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher, is built around one solid dining room scene, which is not only comically sound, it makes sense, given that Guess Who is a loosely inspired remake of Guess Who s Coming to Dinner, the original cringingly uncomfortable-dining-room-table romantic comedy. Everything right and wrong with Guess Who, however, is contained in that scene. Kutcher, who plays a white rising Wall Street star (and newly unemployed for mysterious reasons), offhandedly mentions that his family used to tell jokes about black people. But he never laughs at them, of course.
He s come to suburban New Jersey for a long weekend to meet the parents of his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), who is black. They didn t know that he s white until he arrives and her father mistakes the black cab driver for the new boyfriend (another funny scene). Being that modern comedy is habitually overwritten, this all happens the same weekend her parents are throwing a party to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Her father is played by Bernie Mac, always an inspired choice: His lips tighten in permanent rage, his glare could melt polar ice caps.
No one slow-burns better.
Mac s lot in life is agitation, and like a lot of agitated people, his characters seem to gravitate to grief; they re practiced in dealing with it, and they have the intimidating comebacks to disarm it.
When Kutcher unwisely mentions black jokes, Mac (who has not warmed to the idea of a white boyfriend) suggests he tell a few. It s a terrific, unique way of placing the race card squarely on the table, and the cast plays it for a maximum squirm. For a moment, Guess Who is audacious. Also, there s a surprising amount of warmth involved; director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, who made the underrated Barbershop 2, has a love of faces and the shorthand we fall back into with folks we ve known forever.
Anyway, the first joke is considered cute. The second, almost a tribute of sorts to Tiger Woods. Mac s family loosens up: Here is a guy who knows how to talk about the elephant in the room.
That s when he tells one too many; and you know it s coming, the way you always knew Dudley Moore would eventually fall into a swimming pool. But having gotten a laugh out of the scene, having exploited race for a gag, Guess Who eases off and goes back to being another garden variety comedy about a guy being stared at by his girlfriend s dad.
Let s not hold any illusions:
Guess Who s Coming to Dinner, the celebrated 1967 interracial romantic comedy about a young white woman who brings her black physician boyfriend (Sidney Poitier) home to meet the parents, never did have the stomach to address race head on, either. Not with the groundbreaking insistence you remember it did, anyway. Which is not to say it was gutless. Director Stanley Kramer was right to give a film about interracial dating, especially nearly 40 years ago, a noble, progressive, and gentle touch.
And yet in the end he cops out, and his film becomes not about the question of whether Spencer Tracy (in his last role) could accept the color of his daughter s new boyfriend. Tracy never does accept it, not really. He wins every argument against it, in fact. What breaks him down is having his authority and his fatherhood threatened: He s implored to remember what it felt like to find his one true love (Katharine Hepburn), and only then does Tracy give his daughter the nod.
The issue gets sidestepped.
As much as things change...
You know the rest. But even by that nearly 40-year-old example and especially because it comes at a time when interracial dating is far less an issue Guess Who is meek and gutless. Ashton lies about working in a NASCAR pit. So Bernie challenges him to a go-cart race. Ashton stays in a bedroom within tip-toe distance of his daughter. So Bernie insists on sleeping with Ashton in a padlocked basement. Some of this, however obvious, is very funny because Kutcher and Mac have a classic opposites-attract bond. They go for the big laughs every time; they re both hams.
But even Guess Who s Coming to Dinner knew you don t bring up bigotry and then avoid it; the conversation was always informed by how two families were looking at each other. I counted exactly one conversation in Guess Who where Mac and his daughter address what is really going on here. She tells him she needs his support right now, not his mind games, because she s always going to have to deal with the stares of the small-minded.
Still, I laughed more than I expected, and a few scenes are more serious-minded than anyone would expect, considering the advertising. Guess Who is wise not to overplay differences between the white Kutcher and the black Mac. It s not as pious and self-congratulatory as the original, but in the end, they re both about making relationships work; it never does get around to dealing with Mac s problem with his daughter dating a white boy.
Which seems too bad because when it does address bigotry, it seems more informed than the typical studio comedy. Perhaps that avoidance, however, is part of the point. When Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier butted heads, they did so in the midst of the Civil Rights era, and offstage, at least, they were not always treated or regarded as equals.
Today celebrity has become the great equalizer. Black, white, purple, or yellow you re never more equal than when you re famous, and it d be hard to believe these two are treated any differently. That swagger informs their performances. If Guess Who never has ambition, that s because it s a vehicle for Mac and Kutcher, a studio-designed way of raising two actors big-screen value. At the box office, they re equals. Why complicate things?
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6117.