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My daughter likes what? (l-r) Kutcher and Mac in Guess Who.

Less Than Perfect Harmony
By Laura Leon

Guess Who
Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan

It’s somewhat embarrassing that Guess Who sheds no new insights on race relations, especially in comparison to its predecessor, the groundbreaking 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which a white daughter raised by liberal parents surprises them by announcing her engagement to a black man. That movie made the situation palatable for viewers by casting Sidney Poitier—the epitome of respectable black manhood—as the fiancé who happened to be noble, accomplished, brilliant and, oh yeah, a doctor. I mean, what’s not to like? The 2005 version, directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan, stays this trend even while reversing the situation. This time, it’s white financial whiz kid Simon (Ashton Kutcher) who is being sprung on the unsuspecting, affluent family of fiancée Theresa (Zoë Saldaña). By taking out the potential stings—and any resulting commentary thus afforded—of class and economics, the filmmakers have offered a glass that is half empty.

Bernie Mac plays Theresa’s disapproving poppa, Percy Jones, a loan officer at the local bank. Even before the meeting, Simon is a wreck. Pictures taken by Theresa of her father show him looking like he’s about to kill a referee, and this, we are told, was a happy moment. As the movie moves along, we realize that Simon was raised by a single parent, a possibly interesting and decidedly against-type tidbit that could have been used better to distinguish the personalities of both him and Percy, but, like so much else in this movie, is wasted. Screenwriters David Ronn, Jay Scherick and Peter Tolan rely on the tried and tired in their formulaic writing; arguments feel made up and underfueled, serving only to provide a setup for a joke or sight gag. Case in point: Upon arriving home, Theresa blows a gasket when Percy informs her that Simon cannot share her bedroom. It’s apparently too much to assume that Theresa would have known about her father’s rules of the house, not to mention that neither Percy nor mom Marian (Judith Scott) had ever heard of or met their future son-in-law at this point. Clearly, this little flare-up is meant to be the springboard for a moment when Percy walks in on Simon and Theresa, who has donned her teddy, gets the “wrong idea,” and banishes the young man to sleeping in the basement. With him. It’s all so laborious, no matter how much amusement both Mac and Kutcher can wring from the thinnest material.

There is one moment when boredom subsides and the audience sits up and takes notice. At a tense dinner with the extended Jones clan, Simon informs them how he thinks the best way to combat prejudice is to tackle it one incident at a time. For instance, when his uncle told a racist joke at a holiday gathering, he took him to task for it. The family nods approvingly, except for Percy, who goads Simon into telling them the joke, which amuses the family. This leads to an ever more painful exchange wherein Jones keeps encouraging the reluctant Simon to tell another one, until the moment when the joke fails badly, inciting the family’s shock and dismay. Here, Percy, as victim, lays into Simon, in a decidedly odd turning of the tables. While I doubt, given the obvious sitcom-like way the scene concludes, that Sullivan is trying to suggest that blacks like Percy want to have it both ways, I actually wished he was trying to say something of that sort, if only to infuse this tepid story with something provocative. I guess the way to look at Guess Who is as a buddy film, in which a tough older codger finally comes to a meeting of the minds with a young goofball, but even then, it’s a lazy, uninspiring mess.

She’s Not All That

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous
Directed by John Pasquin

No one can accuse Sandra Bullock of loving a challenge. Here she is, playing Miss Congeniality again, and in a sequel that lacks the original’s one saving grace, its zippy banter. Filled with a whole lot of cutesy-poo and infrequent sight gags or one-liners, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous can better be described as Inane and Innocuous. Bullock, as cloddish FBI agent Gracie Hart, is quite adept at the kind of gentle mugging that the vapid script calls for, but she also gives some hints that she might’ve had to more to offer—such as when Gracie is dumped, over the phone, by Agent Matthews (Benjamin Bratt in the original). Bewilderment and disappointment are telegraphed across her face with a minimum of effort and not a speck of artifice.

The remainder of the film is a pile of silly contrivances staged by sitcom director John Pasquin. Because of her appearance in the beauty pageant of the first Miss, Gracie is now too famous for fieldwork, and so she accepts an offer to be the spokesperson for the newly media-savvy FBI. Tempted by the notion that national exposure might reignite the interest of Matthews, Gracie revels in her assignment to become “FBI Barbie.” She requires, of course, another makeover, this time for her “personal presentation,” and is thus transformed into a Chanel-wearing mannequin who takes her slick media image a tad too seriously. The comic conflict, supposedly, comes from Gracie’s interactions with her mannish bodyguard, Sam Fuller (Regina King), an agent who is on probation for her violent temper. The versatile King (Jerry Maguire, Ray) can’t bring anything to this cardboard role other than her whipcrack articulation. After some especially unfunny tussles, Sam somehow inspires Gracie to rediscover the tomboy side that made her such an effective agent. Actually, Gracie is more amusing as a stuck-up mannequin.

Meanwhile, Miss United States (Heather Burns) and her manager (William Shatner) are kidnapped and held for ransom somewhere in Las Vegas. Shatner steals his crumbs of screen time, but as in the first Miss, the funniest character is a gay stylist. Michael Caine’s old-school beauty consultant is replaced by Joel (Diedrich Bader), a chi-chi personal stylist who follows Gracie everywhere, acting as her de facto partner. (After barging into a debriefing, he admits that he prefers boxers.) Miss 2 undoubtedly would have have been funnier if it had dispensed with King’s bodyguard and the predictable female bonding and just let Gracie hang with Joel (and his two assistants, whose indie-rocker affectations could have been mined for more than just walk-ons). Treat Williams deserves better than to be used as filler as the hardass Vegas chief, while Elisabeth Röhm reprises her Law & Order role to no effect whatsoever. Miss Congeniality 2 takes the easy way out, going for cute and fuzzy over sharp and funny at every turn. Except for the tacked-on ending, which is pure schmaltz.

—Ann Morrow

Watch and Be Cursed With Boredom

The Ring Two
Directed by Hideo Nakata

At the beginning of this sequel to the Gore Verbinski-directed American version of Nakata’s Japanese thriller, Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) asks her young boy, Aidan (David Dorfman), if he can’t refer to her as his mother as opposed to “Rachel.” At the end of the film, Rachel tells him to call her Rachel. Presumably, her attempts to be a good mother throughout The Ring Two’s disjointed onslaught of shocks and ghostly attacks have put as much strain on her maternal feelings as they have on our forbearance of foolishness.

As did the original, this ringlet concerns the evil child Samara (Daveigh Chase), who is featured in the cursed videotape that dooms anyone who watches it unless he or she can dupe some poor innocent into watching a duplicate of it within one week. This time the video gets little play, and Samara is intent on exercising her will over Rachel and Aidan. It seems she wants Rachel as a surrogate mother to replace the one who disposed of Samara down a well. Worsening matters, Samara wants to be an only child. Various people who see or don’t see the video get killed or subjected to a novel form of Japanese water torture as Rachel tries to keep Aidan out of Samara’s clammy grasp.

While plot may not have been the most important ingredient of Nakata’s past works, the original Ringu and its American adaptation and Nakata’s own Japanese sequel, Ringu 2, all held together and built a sense of slowly mounting dread. Much of that suspense, however, came from atmosphere and Nakata’s occasionally offhanded inclusion of details that might or might not be considered threats.

This time we merely get a case of ring goo as The Ring Two leaps from shock to shock with nary a connecting thread. And surprise is no substitute for the suspense and mood found in this film’s muted, and sometimes monochromatic, precursors, which slowly counted down the days one had left to live. It’s as if Nakata’s style has been drained from him and replaced by the less exacting trappings of contemporary Western approaches to horror.

A couple of his touches remain. Early in the film there is a throwaway shot of a man’s side that introduces a fleeting sense of menace—even if the partial torso and arm ultimately represents no real danger. The film’s one effective showpiece makes scary, if random, use of one of nature’s most beautiful and harmless creatures, a deer. It appears incongruously next to an amusement park ride which one assumes would scare it away. Later a herd of deer are used to particularly upsetting effect certain to play into every motorist’s fear of hitting one.

Watts is again quite good as Rachel, and were it not for her, there would be little to compel one’s intermittent interest in the film. Credit her with pretending to know what’s happening even when the sodden script scuttles sense, coherence and transitions.

—Ralph Hammann


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