Saturday, March 26, 2005

REV: Guess Who and the state of comedy

Review: Guess Who (original title The Dinner Party), 26 March 2005, 2.5/4.0

All right, there are a lot of things to tackle on this film. Let me start first by saying that i enjoyed it. There were lots of legitimate laughs, some winning screen relationships, and i appreciate the tackling of tough subject matter, which mostly worked.

Many reviewers i suspect are doing one to three things: a) attacking the tired interracial comedy of it all; b) lambasting it as cliche; and/or c) going apoplectic over the acting chops of Ashton Kutcher.

As for tired interracial comedy, here's where it differs: it has taken a classic (if severely dated, not really good enough to be "classic", and now seemingly superficial and undaring) film and updated it by way of current thought and situations. And doing so, for the most part, without kowtowing to the usual stereotypes and "offensive" humor that make thinking folks wince.

Instead it shows (as the original intended to do) that what are the foibles of human nature cross all barriers. This was never so apparent as in the dinner scene in which Kutcher is goaded into telling "black" jokes he has heard. It's the reactions to the various "styles" of jokes that show this range. The humor is not the jokes themselves, but in the way different people view them in context of their own situations. And thus different cohorts of guests find various things funny.

As for cliche, well i think simply the genre "romantic comedy" is cliche. Beyond that, once one has acceded to make a movie of that type, one has to do some original things with it. And i think for the most part the filmmakers succeeded here, with the homage to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner coming only in the premise.

The entirety of the piece will be compared, i'm sure, to the Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers duet. While the first of those succeeded pretty much across the board, and the second also was funny if over the top and episodic, they both depended on sight gags, pratfalls, and neat little twists on the predictable. Guess Who has only the occasional pratfall and sight gag (a couple of them truly bad) but rises higher in the third category in that the twists on the predictable mine below the surface, are more than momentarily funny, and they further the relationships on the screen rather than simply use them as setups.

I can't make enough of the relationships. That between Bernie Mac and his wife, played by Judith Scott, that between Ashton Kutcher and his girlfriend (and the daughter), played by Zoe Saldana, that between Mac and Kutcher, and that between Saldana and her sister, played by Kellee Stewart, all are played with a profound depth of loving (sometimes grudging) respect even when they are at odds with each other.

Okay, so i used the word profound with regards to Ashton Kutcher. That brings up the third critic's object of scorn.

The fact is that Kutcher is no Brando. But this is a comedy. A freakin' romantic comedy. Does a guy have to go from enormous rage to intellectuality to tears in one flick to get any credit?

All right so i couldn't bear to watch any of his juvenile looking for cars things. He turned me off. But with Butterfly Effect (which i stumbled into without realizing who was in it) he gained some small acceptance from me. He can be funny. And best of all, it comes easy to him, he doesn't have to do stupid human tricks like Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey or any of the recent bumbling fools who i think just aren't funny (see below). His comedy is based on delivery, and it's smart, and it is truly funny. And he can act beyond spitting out a line. He is comfortable in this role. And from it i'd expect more out of him than i've seen in Owen Wilson, or Sandler; though Carrey, as obnoxious as he is, does have some minor chops himself.

The Show Details
Biospoilers -- There are only three birds picked up on the soundtrack. Two are nightbirds appropriately shown in night scenes, and the third is a day singer appropriately shown in the day. The first is a Whip-Poor-Will which would be okay for the New Jersey region of the film, and the season is okay for it as well. The cityscape might be iffy but not unheard of. Number two is the ubiquitous night owl of moviedom, a Boreal Owl, radically wrong for location at least at that season. The third is an unidentified passerine, probably a fringillid of some sort, but i can't place it and can't vouch for authenticity. Perhaps some reader can butt in. All three are foleyed in.

Cinematic notes: The filming was good overall. There were a couple of scenes that were blocked more like stagecraft than filmcraft but for most folks it won't seem too out of whack. Oddly the film is shot at what looks like 4:3.

Finally, there were times when i just wanted to scream FOCUS THE CAMERA. How is it, that with professional DPs someone can't either get the camera focused, or recognize that in dailies and reshoot?

Defining moment (Spoiler): Bernie Mac stealing Kutcher's halfness-wholeness explanation to regain his wife, leaving a fumbling Kutcher with nothing to say and setting up the soul-searching breakup.

Overall: A good, if not great film. Strengths -- honest laughs, deeper than usual relationships for a romantic comedy, mostly honest portrayals, the three female leads/support (while the two men get star billing, the women are uniformly excellent). Weaknesses -- inability to deal with adult sexula mores as easily as it dealt with race, inability to avoid stupidity like the song & dance number at the ceremony (choreographed waiters indeed), inability to avoid using fireworks (we don't need raging metaphors), one too many Kutcher as black linguist stunts, and the NASCAR thing just doesn't fly. If you go, don't miss the credits, with a continuing, funny gag.

The Log: From Rotten Tomatoes

The Extras
Let's return briefly to the unfunny comics of late. Starting with Jim Carrey who i simply can't abide. The problem there is he is a better actor than comedian, and as long as he sticks with things like Eternal Sunshine he may do well. His comedy, like Kutcher's, is best when it has some intelligence. Dumb and Dumber? Well, dumb. And not funny. And neither is all the toilet humor. Man in the Moon was promising except it too had to find the lowest common denominator.

The reason this is important now is that there were two trailers before Guess Who for comedies starring Will Ferrell. I don't watch TV so a lot of these people come to me first via movies. Ferrell i first saw and recognized for some humor in the parody clip of George Bush at his ranch. Very funny. Bu his other things that i sought out -- not funny. And so here're back-to-back trailers of him in comedies -- Kicking & Screaming and Bewitched.

Kicking and Screaming piqued my interest because it's about coaching soccer. Ferrell is the coach from hell. Bewitched is not so much a movie take on the old TV show as something of a parody, with the "actors" being a pompous divo and a real witch.

Here's the thing. Trailers are almost always funny, or dramatic, in a way that the movies themselves have trouble living up to. They are 60 second distillations of the best a film has to offer. So when there's NO laughs in a comedy trailer one doesn't have to wonder about paying the admission later. Neither of these were funny. Cross Ferrell off the list.

So, along that line it was interesting to find this article in the New York Times about the "funny cabal" of current comedians, which not only didn't mention Kutcher (i guess he's not in because he's got a hot date), but heaped praise on some of the most unfunny folks out there, including Owen Wilson (who not only was in another unfunny trailer tonight [Wedding Crashers], but whom i can no longer look at after i read a blog this week that called him penisnose).

Go figure.

Hollywood's Funniest Clique from the New York Times

More from the New York Times

Update: The show led the weekend box office, so i guess now it has to be critically savaged. Unfortunate.


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