I suppose it's a measure of how far we've come in the area of race relations that Hollywood can remake Guess Who's Coming to Dinner as a comedy and nobody bats an eye. Then again, this is probably the only way to update Stanley Kramer's 1967 chestnut, which hasn't aged particularly well. The original film approached the subject of race with a deadly seriousness that might have felt appropriate at the time, but today borders on camp. Not even the combined talents of Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (who scored her second Oscar for her role) can overcome the stilted dialogue and stagy direction. Still, the minds behind the remake-which has been imaginatively titled Guess Who, no doubt to benefit modern moviegoers' short attention spans-were correct to assume that, if played for intentional laughs, the premise might still have some life left in it. Unfortunately, the finished product misses the mark. What could have been a provocative social comedy about race and prejudice is instead a bland rom-com that seems afraid of its own subject matter. Forget Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, this movie is more like a remake of Meet the Parents.
In addition to shortening the title, Guess Who attempts to distinguish itself from its predecessor by changing the race of the main characters. This time around, a young black woman named Theresa (Zoë Saldaña) brings her white boyfriend-and secret fiancé-Simon (Ashton Kutcher) home to meet her parents, Percy (Bernie Mac) and Marilyn (Judith Scott), on the weekend of their 25th-anniversary party. Mom and Dad's first reaction is surprise, but Marilyn quickly warms to Simon when she sees how much he adores Theresa. Percy isn't as easily convinced; in fact, he takes an instant dislike to his daughter's intended, not, he claims, because Simon is white but because he seems to be hiding something. He's right about that-Simon recently quit his high-paying job as a stockbroker for a prominent firm and he's desperate to keep the secret from Theresa and her family, at least until they've approved the engagement. Naturally, that plan doesn't go particularly well and Simon's repeated attempts to bond with Percy also come to naught, which only makes things tenser with his bride-to-be. As the big party draws nearer, it looks like the young lovers' relationship might be over before it really begins.
There's one scene in Guess Who that hints at what the movie might have been. At dinner one night, Simon casually mentions that he once yelled at a relative for telling a politically incorrect joke about black people. Percy goads him into repeating the joke, which turns out to be mostly harmless and gets a laugh out of everyone at the table. So Percy pushes Simon to tell a few more of the black jokes he's heard over the years. The young man unwisely takes him up on his challenge and reels off a string of equally innocuous if somewhat off-color gags. Inevitably, however, Simon comes to a joke that crosses the line, at which point Percy storms away from the table. Although this scene is uncomfortable to watch, it's one of the few moments in the movie that confronts the characters' differences head-on. Most of the time, the filmmakers are content to dance around the subject of race or explain it away with the usual warm platitudes. The dinner scene digs a little deeper, exposing how delicate the bonds between the races still are and how hard it can be to overcome that. It's also the one scene where the two lead actors appear to be on the same page. Mac is his usual gregarious self throughout, but Kutcher primarily comes across like a series of tics in search of a character. (The real star here is Scott, who does a wonderful job in the Hepburn part.) The dinner sequence could have been the opening to a savvy and funny reimagining of an outdated drama. Sadly, it's the only memorable thing in an otherwise forgettable remake.