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Off to the Races

"Guess Who" tries to shake up a stuffy '60s icon.

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The story, such as it is, creaks into action when a lovely, talented young woman (Zo‰ Salda¤a) introduces her boyfriend to her solidly middle-class black parents. They are astonished to discover that their daughter has been dating a white man, a fact she had been too scared to reveal in advance. The mother (Judith Scott) reacts with exemplary sang-froid, retreating to the kitchen to make everyone lemonade. The father (Bernie Mac), however, is another matter. He forces a smile from time to time, but his glaring eyes and the growling emitted from his clenched teeth reveal his real feelings.

In the original film, a white daughter risks estrangement from her parents by bringing home Sidney Poitier. In "Guess Who," Salda¤a takes the same risk for the sake of Ashton Kutcher, signaling the vast lowering of stakes in this silly, sorry re-tread. Having failed to win much applause for his foray into drama in last year's "The Butterfly Effect," Kutcher dispenses with the fuss of creating a three-dimensional character and reverts to his usual shtick. Sometimes he engages in spastic pratfalls, but for the most part, he simply presents his face to the camera as if it were a shiny, expensive present certain to win our approval.

With his distinct brand of movie-star eloquence, Kutcher has told the press, "I decided that I wanted to play my character Jewish, to have another difference, because Bernie [Mac] is Christian in the movie, and I decided that I wanted to play my character Jewish." It's a sign of the studios' passion for blandness that every line dealing with Jewishness has been excised from the final version, and it's a sign of the shallowness of Kutcher's characterization that you'd never know the cuts have been made. To say that the whole question of race in this movie is only skin- deep is an insult to the strength and elasticity of skin.

That's perhaps less a moral failing than a dramatic one, because all that's left is a lumbering revision of Ben Stiller's "Meet the Parents" that just happens to be interracial. Our almost limitless reserve of anxiety over racial matters allows for any number of funny or dramatic stories, but all we get here is a petulant dad seething and squirming at the prospect of having a son-in-law. To be sure, it's a pleasure to watch Mac try to restrain the coiled ferocity he wants to unleash in Kutcher's direction. Even when the inevitable happens, and Mac decides to bed down with Kutcher in the guest room to ensure that the lovebirds remain chaste, the older actor's formidable presence keeps things from going completely flat. But Mac's charisma works against the intentions of the creators: His barely contained fury is so much more engaging and persuasive than the young lovers' cooing that you can't help wishing he'd succeed in putting an end to their insipid affair.

In spite of its many shortcomings, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" probably will survive for years as a symbol of Hollywood rectitude. Within a few months, however, "Guess Who" will have sunk into DVD oblivion like a stone. ** S



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