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Guess Who (2005)

Some in-laws were meant to be broken.

Directed by:

Kevin Rodney Sullivan

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 105 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 12a

Country: United States

To look back on it now, Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967), wherein Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's middle class parents are taken aback to learn that their daughter's fiancé (Sidney Poitier) is a black man, may today seem a saccharine exercise in liberalism, not least because Poitier's character is painted, er, whiter than white – a near saintly figure who can do no wrong, in a patronising sixties update of the noble savage. Yet the groundbreaking importance of the film cannot be underestimated, coming at a time when Civil Rights were a novelty (and not an entirely popular one) – and it would still be two years before an episode of 'Star Trek' would feature mainstream America's first ever on-screen interracial kiss, notably set in an idealised and very distant future. So 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' was very much a product of its time. Jump ahead 38 years, and times have inevitably changed – so in 'Guess Who', Kevin Rodney Sullivan's reimagining of Kramer's film, only the young fiancé, Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher), is white, while his fiancé Theresa Jones (Zoë Saldaña) and her parents, Percy (Bernie Mac) and Marilyn (Judith Scott), are all black. 'Guess Who' presents itself as a breezy comedy, following in some detail the formula established by Meet the Parents (2000) – from Percy's disapproving patriarch (who has run a check on Simon) to the weekend visit in the middle of a family celebration (the parents' 25th wedding anniversary), to Simon being made to sleep in the basement. Yet even if it was a clash of Jewish and WASP sensibilities that lay behind much of the comic tension in Meet the Parents and its sequel Meet the Fockers, ethnicity issues never quite came out of the closet in these films – whereas in 'Guess Who' there is never any doubt that race and colour are at the film's very heart. Jokes are of course a staple of comedy, but they can also act as a barometer of the collective unconscious – and so an economically written dinner-table sequence in 'Guess Who' leaves characters and viewers alike not knowing whether to laugh or cringe as Percy repeatedly goads Simon into telling racist jokes in the presence of Percy's own father Howard (Hal Williams), old enough to have been an adult when Civil Rights were still in their infancy. It is a subtle scene, bringing different ages and their values into direct confrontation, while neatly reminding viewers that the generation for whom Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? was revolutionary has not simply disappeared in the meantime. As Simon tries to maintain a postmodern, politically correct attitude, and Howard begins to rage with indignation, I defy anyone who supposes that race is no longer an issue in noughties America not to feel just a little uncomfortable. For the most part, though, 'Guess Who' is a blend of situation farce and (especially towards the end) mawkish slush, and without the ever-hilarious presence of Bernie Mac, who dominates the laughs even if his character may not quite dominate the Jones household, it would hardly be memorable. Still, by mostly preferring verbal wit to madcap slapstick, 'Guess Who' is also, at least to my mind, somewhat funnier than the overrated 'Meet the Parents' – and behind its smile there is a welcome snarl.

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It's Got: Bernie Mac - which is all a second-rate comedy needs to become watchable.

It Needs: To lose the distracting subplot about whether event organiser Dante (Robert Curtis-Brown) is gay or just metrosexual - either way, he is still an annoying filmic stereotype.

Alternatives:

Guess Whos Coming to Dinner?, Meet the Parents, Only Human

Summary

This inverted reimagining of 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' is none too original, but behind its smile there's a welcome snarl.

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