Bernie Mac is a force of nature. Only the directors who realize this will have any success with him. When they “get” him — as they do on his often-brilliant, self-referential Fox sitcom, or as Steven Soderbergh did in a couple of choice scenes in Ocean’s Eleven, or best of all, as Spike Lee did in The Original Kings of Comedy — they realize that Mac’s humor is always laced with threat, the feeling that he could turn on you in a second if you crossed him. Like the tornado chasers in Twister, smart directors realize that the best they can do is keep their distance, flip on their recording devices and just observe the man in action.
Add Kevin Rodney Sullivan to the list of filmmakers who know how to handle Mac. The title of his new comedy, Guess Who, makes a vague reference to the hand-wringing 1968 classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was patted on the back at the time as being Hollywood’s first serious look at interracial romance. Sullivan’s film turns that notion on its ear, reversing the races so that this time, it’s a proud African-American family that has to come to terms with their daughter’s love for her gawky, sheepish white boyfriend (Ashton Kutcher). If you’ve seen the previews, you’d be forgiven for expecting the worst: Meet the Parents collides with Soul Man, or worse, Bringing Down the House meets Father of the Bride Part II.
But Guess Who has a lot more going for it. With Mac as the stern, uptight father Percy Jones, the film’s satire has real teeth: When he tells the lovey-dovey Theresa (a perky Zoe Saldana) that he doesn’t trust her stammering, lily-white “other half,” he means it. At every turn, Sullivan and the screenwriters make sure the comedy is played out through the characters’ uneasiness with each other, and not through lame physical antics or broad one-liners (although Kutcher has a terrific dinner scene where he rattles off a list of offensive jokes he’s heard). The Jones family’s rapport with one another is natural and believable, particularly the scenes involving the sharp, tolerant mother and wife Marilyn, played with pinpoint accuracy by Judith Scott.
Not to say that the film is without flaws: It isn’t above the occasional Farrelly brothers-style pratfall, there are a couple of subplots that go nowhere fast, and there’s a “metrosexual” party-planning character that just doesn’t work. But those fleeting moments don’t detract from the loose, ingratiating feeling of good will built up by the director and his cast. In a time of Meet the Parents rip-offs, Sullivan is obviously going for something more like the heartfelt social satire of Jerry Maguire. With the help of the caustic-but-lovable Mac, he comes close to achieving his goal.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.