Certain actors, like Jackie Gleason or Spencer Tracy, were built for disgruntlement, and Bernie Mac is one of them. It’s there in his defensive purse-lipped scowl, in his eyes, which are always widening (or threatening to) with skeptical fury, and in his voice, a low funky musical growl that can rise an octave or two when he’s ticked off. The phrase ”high dudgeon” might have been invented to describe him; dudgeon is what Bernie Mac gets high on. As a comic personality, he’s a paradox — a thin-skinned egomaniac. Yet his raspy irritability, honed to a fine froth of satirical gruffness in his stand-up routines and on his television series, wouldn’t wear nearly so well if it weren’t for the deep dish of sweetness at his core. Tall and thickly padded, he’s a growling grizzly bear of a man, with a teddy bear hidden inside.
Guess Who is a loose remake of the 1967 interracial-romance comedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, this time with the races reversed, and the smartest thing the filmmakers did was to get Mac to play the Spencer Tracy role: the cranky, bourgeois, secretly panicky father whose philosophy of tolerance is tested when his daughter brings home a fiancé who happens to be of the ”wrong” color. Mac’s Percy Jones, a bank loan officer with a roomy, elegant house in a small New Jersey town, is about to throw a weekend party to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary. There’s a funny moment early on when his daughter, Theresa (Zoë Saldaña), arrives with her boyfriend, a Wall Street player on the rise named Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher), and Percy, before he has had the chance to be introduced, naturally assumes that the fine young fellow he’s been hearing about is their black cabdriver. The scene lends new meaning to the notion of color blindness.
Once he’s set straight, Percy looks at Simon, the yuppie Manhattan white boy, and he doesn’t much like what he sees. For all his hostility, he’s too middle class to say out loud what’s bothering him. He treats Simon as a pariah, but he does it by holding the race card close to his vest. In this sitcom-y culture clash, racial tension is exploited for the occasional quick-hit gag (songs like ”Walk on the Wild Side,” with its ”colored girls” refrain, pop up on the car radio), only to be displaced at every turn. Since Percy won’t condone his daughter sleeping with Simon, the men end up bunking together in Percy’s basement rec room: a two-guys-in-bed visual joke that’s as far from funny as it is from credible. They engage in a smash-and-grab go-cart duel, and the rest of the film consists of cliché oedipal grousing. Percy, a bit of a prig, sneers at Simon for ordering a vodka before dinner, and though he approves of the man’s financial career, the big twist is that Simon has mysteriously quit his job. Horrors! What will happen if Percy finds out?
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was one of the most genteel message movies ever made, with Sidney Poitier, as the superstar physician fiancé, cast as a white dream of black perfection. Yet Poitier brought this plaster saint to life, and the movie, in its rose-colored way, explored issues of love and bigotry with a perky, insistent humanity. Tracy, in his last screen role, showed you a crusty progressive man’s blinders and then removed them. The film was noble but never sanctimonious.
Guess Who, made in an era of greater freedom, is a far more timid movie. There’s a showpiece scene in which Simon tells black jokes at the dinner table (I wish Percy would have responded with a few white ones), but that’s the film’s token moment of audacity. If you’re going to cast a live-wire cutup like Ashton Kutcher in a comedy of stereotypes, why not make him, say, a hip-hop fan with a fool’s daring, or an earnest left-wing politico, or something? Kutcher, who has the beady gaze of a trickster opportunist, is stuck playing an innocuous nice guy, which he does almost too well for comfort.
Putting an interracial love story on screen may have been bold in 1967, but by now it should be more casual than it is. The skittish, focus-grouped blandness of Guess Who comes through in the flavorlessness of the romance: Simon and Theresa are characters with their egos sanded down — they have zero cultural differences to conquer. Zoë Saldaña is a lovely presence, but I never believed that a woman this free of quirks sprung from a walking temper tantrum like Bernie Mac. As the two men learn to accept each other, Guess Who, with its PG-13 putdowns, turns into the kind of love story that Hollywood feels most comfortable with: a buddy movie, salt-and-pepper variety. All that’s missing is the cop car.