Karl Marx once wrote that “history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” That must be how the earnest drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner got remade as this silly comedy.
Nearly 40 years ago, the original version was a serious drama, a little heavy-handed, but endearingly sincere. It was considered a provocative, even daring, statement about what we used to call “civil rights” issues.
But times have changed, and this film is generic slapstick rather than social commentary, closer to a remake of Meet the Parents than it is to its purported original source. Its truer source is Abie’s Irish Rose, the popular Broadway play of the 1920’s about an Irish Catholic girl and her Jewish boyfriend and the zillion romantic comedy culture-clash copy-cats ever since, from “Bridget Loves Bernie” to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That may be good news as a reflection of how far we have come as a society; it’s not such good news for movie-goers looking for something worth watching.
In the original Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, directed by Big Issue-friendly director Stanley Kramer, the beloved only daughter of a passionately liberal white San Francisco couple brings home a man she has just met and plans to marry almost immediately. He is a widower, he is older, and he is black. He is also a doctor with a brilliant record of international humanitarian works and, played by Sidney Poitier, he is just about perfect.
The focus of the movie is the way the couple, reform-minded newspaper editor Spencer Tracy (in his last role) and feisty art gallery owner Katharine Hepburn have to confront the concrete consequences of their heartfelt but abstract liberalism.
And it turns out that some of the black characters (referred to in the movie as “Negro” or “colored” — this was quite a while ago) are not very happy about the impending nuptials, either. The mothers of the couple are on the side of love and optimism, but both fathers oppose the marriage on the grounds that society will just make it too hard for them. After a lot of intense conversation, Tracy’s character concludes that, “You’re two wonderful people who happened to fall in love and happen to have a pigmentation problem.” Love will conquer all.
This very loose remake directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan (Barbershop 2: Back in Business) reverses the situation. Now it’s the white boyfriend (co-producer Ashton Kutcher) who describes himself as “pigment-challenged” and who must get the approval of the black girl’s father (co-producer Bernie Mac). It’s all just an excuse for a series of silly situations and conflicts as Simon lies to Percy about his participation in sports and Percy lies to a co-worker, describing Simon as a basketball-playing graduate of Howard University who knows Bill Cosby and Jesse Jackson. There are also some other half-hearted attempts at plot developments that are around long enough to be annoying but not long enough to get resolved. Percy takes Simon to race go-carts and Simon tries to keep everyone from finding out that he quit his job. And Percy decides to sleep in the back-breaking fold-out bed with Simom to make sure there’s no hanky-panky going on with his daughter. But you know they’ll find an Ebony-and-Ivory bond by the big party at the end.
No one does choleric better than Bernie Mac and it is always fun to see him get steamed. Kutcher manages to stay out of Mac’s way (and his own) and Zoe Saldana (The Terminal, Drumline) shows warmth and sweetness as Theresa. Kellee Stewart as Theresa’s sister gets to show more sass and sparkle, especially when she explains how Theresa’s relationship with Simon improved her own life. The movie would have been much more fun if she had been the fiancee, and perhaps if we got a look at Simon’s family as well. Instead, we get unfunny scenes with Mac and Kutcher (they get tipsy and dance together!) and at an all-women party (they get tipsy and trash men!). And the prospect of a “Meet Simon’s Family” sequel.
Parents should know that the movie has some sexual humor, including jokes about masturbation, cross-dressing, and gays. A character asks “What’s the sex like?” and there is some discussion of what white men’s sex organs look like. There is humor about racism, including a list of racist terms for white people. A great deal is made of the fact that Simon and Percy share a bed (as a way of making sure that Simon and Theresa don’t sleep together) and end up cuddling.
Families who see this movie should see if anyone can remember a time when it was actually illegal in some states for people of different races to get married. Every family should read the Supreme Court decision that invalidated those laws as unconstitutional. It is shocking today to realize that the laws were in place until that decision was issued in 1967, the same year as the original Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The very-apt name of the landmark case is Loving v. Virginia. There is a movie about the real-life couple behind the court case, Mr. and Mrs. Loving, starring Timothy Hutton and Lela Rochon. Families who see this movie should talk about the jokes Simon told. Which made fun of white people and which made fun of black people? They should also talk about their own family reactions to marriages that cross racial, religious, or other kinds of lines.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Father of the Bride.