Reconfiguring Stanley Kramer’s creaky race-relations drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as a farcical comedy, Kevin Sullivan’s Guess Who—now about a white man dealing with his black soon-to-be in-laws—forgoes its predecessor’s moralizing in favor of Meet the Parents-style conflict between a protective father and his daughter’s clumsy, uncomfortable fiancé. Such a tack is both wise—Kramer’s 1967 film was a product of its racially tense times, as well as a didactic bore that set the template for all those preachy Diff’rent Strokes episodes about social issues—and wearisome, as this slapstick comedy’s reductivism is indicative of its lack of ambition or nerve. In perhaps the biggest downgrade in remake casting history, Ashton Kutcher takes on Sidney Poitier’s role as the educated, gentlemanly, and professionally successful boyfriend whose skin color raises the ire of his girlfriend’s father (played, with menacing irritation, by Bernie Mac). Kutcher’s Simon, however, is really just a variation of Ben Stiller’s Gaylord Focker, a neurotic doofus who immediately begins lying to Mac’s intimidating Percy Green about his job status (he’s recently quit) and his athletic prowess (he dishonestly brags about his experience driving NASCAR, Percy’s favorite sport) while getting caught wearing a revealing red negligee.
Despite its incessant jungle-fever jokes (including a car ride in which interracial love songs like “Ebony And Ivory” dominate the airwaves), Guess Who makes clear that Percy’s dislike for Simon isn’t born simply from prejudice—in truth, Simon’s whiteness functions as an embarrassing character trait no different than Gaylord Focker’s name—but also from his general paternal overprotectiveness toward daughter Theresa (a winning Zoe Saldana). Given that Percy and company live in an affluent New Jersey suburb, it’s hard to understand why Theresa’s little sister immediately thinks Simon, purely on the basis of his pastiness, is an auditor, and Percy’s (unbelievable) demand that Simon tell racist jokes at the dinner table is the story’s cheap method of exploiting racial conflict for middling laughs. As befitting its “men will be buffoonish men” narrative, Percy and Simon trade barbs while racing go-carts and uncomfortably cuddling with each other in bed. Yet their eventual recognition that love matters more than complexion—attained during a squishy moment in which Simon prepares Percy for his wedding vow renewal celebration by teaching him how to tango—is complemented by the typical romantic-comedy finale in which guys, showing that they understand their subservient relationship standing, contritely prostrate themselves in front of their angry women. Still, it’s hard to comprehend why Percy ultimately has to apologize for his torturous treatment of Simon—if my daughter brought home the unbearably goofy Kutcher, I’d surely go ballistic as well.