As much as I try not to like Ashton Kutcher, he keeps appearing in movies where he is goofily charming and often very funny. “Guess Who” is a quintessential role for him — affable, put-upon and mildly clueless — and he and his co-star Bernie Mac (also playing to type as a blunt, outspoken father) are the saving graces of what is otherwise a poorly written, misguided rehash of a movie.
The title suggests it was inspired by “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” the seminal 1967 film in which a snooty white girl brings home her black fiance. “Guess Who” reverses the races so that now it’s an upper-class black girl introducing her white boyfriend to the family, but that’s as far as the similarities go. It is “Meet the Parents” that springs to mind most often, as the hapless beau faces off against the sour father while the ineffectual mother and daughter look on. Watch for the young lovers to be caught in provocative situations by Dad, and notice that Dad tells the suitor that he’ll be watching him — sans De Niro’s my-eyes-are-on-you two-fingered gesture, but it’s there in spirit.
Kutcher plays Simon Green, a successful Wall Street broker who has just quit his job for reasons unknown to us. In classic sitcom style, just as Simon is about to tell his girlfriend Theresa (Zoe Saldana) about his sudden unemployment, she mentions that her dad never cared who her boyfriends were as long as they held down good jobs — which makes Simon chicken out and keep it a secret, so that it can come out later at the wrong time and cause trouble between them.
They have bigger fish to fry anyway, because they are going to New Jersey for Theresa’s parents’ gala anniversary party, and at some point over the weekend they plan to announce their own engagement. Theresa has thus far failed to mention Simon’s whiteness to her folks, perhaps only so we can have the gag where her dad thinks the African-American cab driver who delivers her to the house is her boyfriend.
Dad is Percy Jones (Mac), a loan officer at a bank, while Mom is Marilyn (Judith Scott), a homemaker who couldn’t care less what race Simon is. But Percy cares, though he claims not to, and his paternal tendency toward overprotection of his little girl is greatly exacerbated by Simon’s lack of pigment.
The movie’s chief flaw is that there is no good reason for Percy to be as grumpy as he is. His behavior goes beyond simple racism; he seems deeply and profoundly irritated all the time. It’s supposed to be funny, and Mac’s knack for this kind of role means it sometimes is. But I kept noticing that he was often saying or doing something only because the script told him to, and not because the character had any reason to. It’s all very contrived, and never organic.
The movie occupies the space of one weekend, culminating in the big anniversary party. In between are Kutcher and Mac doing their respective klutzing and blustering, eventually settling into a nice groove as a likable comedy team, albeit one that appears in a hack movie. But just as they’re really beginning to gel, the movie (directed by “Barbershop 2’s” Kevin Rodney Sullivan) goes off-course with a bump in Simon and Theresa’s relationship that sends us careening in generic romantic-comedy territory (complete with the public reconciliation). The focus up to this point had been Simon/Percy dynamic; switching to Simon/Theresa is a stark error, because that element is neither funny nor interesting.
A scene at the film’s halfway point, in which Percy bullies Simon into telling black jokes around the dinner table, demonstrates the movie’s ineptitude. The point of the scene (and, ultimately, of the movie) is one that’s already been made clear in countless other film: that it’s OK for black people to make fun of white people, but not the other way around. For all its posturing as an examination of racial tension, the screenplay (by David Ronn, Jay Scherick and Peter Tolan, men whose credits include “Serving Sara,” “National Security” and “Stealing Harvard”) actually has no idea how to address race relations. It can make jokes about the subject, but even those are often thunderingly unfunny, the writers flinging everything at the wall — including ideas that contradict other ideas — to see what sticks. It’s a haphazard film that way, funny one moment and embarrassing the next, all of it only made tolerable by Kutcher and Mac.
C+ (1 hr., 37 min.; )