A few years ago, when I was interning in Chicago, my buddy Jonathan came to visit the city for the first time. When asked for one of the biggest differences between Chicago and Memphis, I paused a bit and then offered this: "In Chicago, there are neighborhoods in which a black man and a white man can walk down the street holding hands and nobody would notice or care. In Memphis, there are neighborhoods where a black man and a white woman can't hold hands without stares." I don't like making generalizations about race, nor do I wish to imply that Chicago is a progressive city while Memphis is stuck in the 1950s. (The cities are progressive in different ways.) However, I'm reviewing Guess Who, a loose remake of the groundbreaking 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? And after the experience of viewing the new film, I thought that somebody needs to start talking about race 'cause Guess Who, despite its 21st-century release, is decidedly behind the times.
Ashton Kutcher is Simon Green, a promising mover and shaker in stocks and bonds. When we first meet him, he is angrily quitting his job (reasons to be disclosed much later in the film). This is bad timing, as he is about to spend the weekend with his (as yet, unmet) girlfriend's parents and announce their engagement at Ma and Pa's 25th anniversary/renewal- of-vows party. Girlfriend Theresa (Zoe Saldana) is a smart, beautiful black artist who, for reasons that remain unclear, fails to mention to her parents that her beau is, shall we say, a paleface.
Dad is Percy Jones (comic firebrand Bernie Mac), also in finances. He has covertly pulled Simon's credit report and is delighted that his daughter's boyfriend is employed, well-off, and responsible. This delight turns to abject horror when Theresa introduces (gasp!) a white man to her daddy. You see, the tables are turned. In 2005, it's funny that a black man would be prejudiced against a white man, right?
If you have seen the comedies Meet the Parents or its Meet the Fockers sequel, you don't have to guess at the rest of this. Dad will put Simon through the wringer a number of times, in a number of forms.
Trusting this white Simon is a challenge, and Dad can smell trouble when Simon claims (after being bullied by the sportsmongering Percy) to have been a NASCAR racer. Half-joke and half-nervous lie, it was all Simon could think to say, but it's enough to start a chain of suspicion that begins with Percy sleeping (and spooning) in the same bed as Simon to protect his daughter's virtue and does not stop at a competitive bumper-car race. Eventually, the two men's fibs and plots offend their respective partners, and after a night in the proverbial doghouse, both must muster an apology and find out if Percy has another 25 years in his marriage and if Simon has another 25 minutes with Theresa.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? was daring in its time. Starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as concerned parents of a young woman who brings a black fiancé home, Dinner covered touchy territory for feature film and managed to point out, as the character of Gary Coleman sings in the off-Broadway musical Avenue Q, "bigotry has never been exclusively whi-i-ite." It didn't hurt the situation that the fiancé, played with incomparable poise by Sidney Poitier, was a paragon: articulate, a famous doctor, and exceedingly handsome.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? was an important, if not particularly funny, comedy. Guess Who, a whopping 38 years after the original, is neither important nor funny. The only real, biting humor comes at a dinner scene when Percy goads Simon into telling the black jokes he knows. Three are funny. The last one is horrible, ending dinner. Oops.
That's okay, as I don't think that social revolution was in the mind of Guess Who's creators. However, with the comic powers of Bernie Mac and the likable doofery of Ashton Kutcher, funny should be in long supply. It's not. The jokes are cheap (and tame). Mac is relegated to glowering and staring hard. And Kutcher seems to have been told that, unless speaking, he is to shift his eyes back and forth awkwardly. When upset, he's to gesture spastically.
Harsh comedian Chris Rock would have done wonders with this script. So would the 1980s. Guess Who? So what?
As imagined by Swiss actor Bruno Ganz and German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, the Adolf Hitler seen in Downfall is surely the definitive screen portrait of perhaps the most terrible figure in human history. Set in the final days of the Third Reich, as the Red Army tightens a noose around Berlin, this is Hitler equally humanized and vilified, a pale, twitching but charismatic megalomaniac whose monstrous self-pity eradicates all traces of compassion.
Confined to his bunker as his horrible, grandiose vision decays, Ganz's Hitler verbally abuses his war counsel ("the scum of the German people"), rages about the "traitors, cowards, and failures" among his ranks, goes on delusional rants about the imminent arrival of distant German armies both he and his advisers know no longer exist, refuses surrender despite the murderous impact of continued resistance on Berlin's citizens ("We have to be cold-blooded. We can't worry about these so-called civilians now"), and, finally, in a testament dictated to his secretary Traudl Junge hours before swallowing a bullet, insists that his proudest moment was "cleansing the German land of Jewish poison."
That's one of the few references to the Holocaust in this unrelenting two-and-a-half-hour film, the first mainstream German movie to deal with Hitler. Downfall isn't a consideration of the Nazi experience in total but a laser-focused look at the final dozen or so days before the regime fell. As Berlin is reduced to rubble above ground and innocent civilians and child soldiers are slain by Russians and Germans alike, Downfall concentrates increasingly on the deluded then desperate situation inside Hitler's underground bunker, a claustrophobic, four-walled set used with such skill that Downfall can't help but be compared to that other great German WWII film, the submarine thriller Das Boot.
Downfall's precise, just-the-facts-ma'am plotting is free of surface ideology or telegraphed messages. But in simply portraying the fall of the Nazi nightmare/dream in such a dispassionately thorough way, Downfall can't help but be brutally self-lacerating. The reality of the history will allow no less.
The true believers of the Nazi regime are embodied here by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes, in a truly unnerving performance), who delivers the harshest medicine ("The German people chose their fate. They gave us the mandate and now their little throats are being cut") and by his icy wife (Corinna Harfouch), who would rather murder her own children than "subject them to life after national socialism."
But more common is Junge, whose 2002 documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, serves as a key influence on Downfall. Junge's real-life testimony bookends the film, and her character, as played by Alexandra Maria Lara, serves not only the familiar function as witness and audience stand-in but also as stand-in for that portion of the German populace that accepted Nazism while remaining willfully ignorant of the extent of its evils. Watching Junge's naiveté crumble along with Berlin itself, one can imagine what a painfully cathartic experience Downfall must be for the German audience it was made for.
American audiences will have to settle for engrossing, as brilliantly acted, expertly directed Downfall piles up a series of fascinating, sometimes lurid, often grim details: Hitler consort Eva Braun's (Juliane Kohler) forced frivolity throwing jazz parties while the bombs fall, a last-minute wedding ceremony between Hitler and Braun where the presiding official reflexively asks for the Fuhrer's paperwork proving he's of pure Aryan descent, Hitler feeding his German shepherd, Blondi, a cyanide tablet lest she fall into the hands of the Russians, soldiers procuring precious gasoline from military cars with which to burn Hitler's and Braun's remains.
Woodrow Wilson famously dubbed D.W. Griffith's racist Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation "history writ with lightning." Also made roughly half-a-century after the historical calamity it chronicles, Downfall might be every bit as pertinent for its audience but is far more historically reliable. Call it History Channel writ with lightning. n Chris Herrington