If only as much thought went into the script for this listless comedy as its marketing calculus, which roughly translates to: “Youth plus urban markets equals solid opening weekend.” Failing to mine most of its comedic possibilities, pic yields some reasonably warm moments but few laughs. Thanks to whatever excitement the premise and its leads engender, domestic box office prospects don’t look bad as a spring fling, but there’s scant chance of a long-term relationship.
Take it as a sign of progress that “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” can actually be reversed for comic effect almost four decades later, at least in theory. Yet stripping away the racial element, too many moments here prove unconvincing and downright stupid — making it difficult to identify with the situations, much less the characters.
Bernie Mac plays Percy Jones, the doting suburban New Jersey dad about to renew his wedding vows, which brings daughter Theresa (Zoe Saldana) and live-in boyfriend Simon (Ashton Kutcher) home from New York for the occasion. Theresa, however, hasn’t told her parents that Simon is, as he puts it, pigment challenged.
Of greater significance, Percy can’t seem to handle the idea that anyone might lay a lingering hand on his twentysomething offspring. What ensues, then, are a series of idiotic moments, from Percy rushing Simon to a hotel (of course, there’s no room at the inn) to the two men sharing a bed (done to considerably greater effect on “All in the Family” more than 30 years ago).
Race notwithstanding, Percy’s behavior comes across as bizarre, though to be fair, Simon’s own silliness — telling Percy whopping lies and rattling off African-American jokes to demonstrate how cool he is — is every bit as off-putting. There is a promising drinking game, however, based on the number of times someone says “Percy Jones,” which includes the lead character, who regularly talks about himself in the third person.
If there’s a saving grace, it’s in the easy rapport that exists between Kutcher and Saldana, which generally surpasses the lines they’re given. Beyond that, only a few rays of light find their way into director Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s uneven direction, which can’t settle on a tone. Those include an amusing bit when Theresa and her mom (Judith Scott) take refuge with Theresa’s aunt, as well as Hal Williams’ fleeting turn as Percy’s even grumpier dad, who doesn’t hide his irritation over having whitey at the dinner table.
Kutcher offers a more buttoned-down version of his “That ’70s Show” persona (he’s a successful stockbroker who abruptly quits, for reasons that take too long to explain), but his charm only goes so far. And while Mac should come away with a better box office scorecard here than for “Mr. 3000,” he’s still yet to find a film worthy of his stand-up and TV gigs, though this comes closer to his sitcom-dad strike zone.
Ultimately, though, “Guess Who” plays like a squandered opportunity — a film that could have wryly dealt with matters of race, or simply could have been funnier, had it possessed a clearer template than a star pairing and a truncated title.
As is, the movie is summed up by a moment where Simon and Percy ride in a car together, fidgeting uncomfortably as the radio keeps spiting out songs about interracial love — a mild laugh that subsides about halfway through the scene. After that, it’s just two guys in a vehicle, with nothing to say.