How do you make the norm abnormal for the sake of comedy? Interracial/mixed-race families are so ordinary these days (I’m part of one as we speak), but comedy often has to exaggerate our differences to strike at deep laughs that speak to deeper, uncomfortable truths. That’s fair enough, and writer/director Kenya Barris’ (“Black-ish”) well-intentioned family comedy, “You People,” certainly seems to have the plan to use racial misunderstanding, misfires, and mis-intentions, to create a funny, insightful dialogue about families, love, and race in America today. So it’s a real shame that the film is, ultimately, very mid, broad, and corny because the film, co-written and starring Jonah Hill, really sparks to life vibrant humor at first, shows tons of promise, and has an outstanding cast, not the least of them is the comedic presence of the great Eddie Murphy, putting in the work this time and seemingly really showing up to play.
But Barris’ film, which starts out strong but then gets caught in cliches and melodrama, seemingly has something to say about difficult-to-bridge cultural differences and the inherent tensions between tone-deaf white people and perhaps the habituated defensiveness of People of Color. But while it flirts with something substantive to say, it falls prey to some really unfortunate, sitcom-ish plot complications and a hokey last act that feels like it’s been ripped out of a cheesy afterschool special.
Jonah Hill stars as Ezra Cohen, a hip-hop-influenced Jewish white kid who runs a podcast (The Mo & E-Z Show) about “the culture” with his partner Mo (Sam Jay; the two of them are dynamite together, and one wishes the film was just about their friendly, but argumentative back and forth). He also has a deeply unfulfilling finance job that he’s eager to quit. The quirks of his odd, neurotic family show their colors immediately, a loving but fussy and anxiously tightly wound mom Shelley Cohen (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and a laid-back dad (David Duchovny) who thinks he’s cooler and down than he is. And both of them have a knack for saying inappropriate things at all times.
Through a silly Uber, mix-up meet cute, Ezra crosses paths with Amira Mohammed (Lauren London), and while they butt heads at first when she assumes Ezra presumed she was just another woman of color chaperoning a rich white kid around, he quickly disabuses her of that notion, shows he’s genuine, empathetic, and authentically apologetic. The next thing you know, these perfect strangers have hit it off and started dating (“I’ve never felt so understood by someone in my entire life,” Ezra says, smitten with the natural chemistry he and Amira have).
Faster than you can say, “you’re my boo,” the couple is meeting each other’s families, intermingling and soon bristling over their cultural differences. Amira going to the Cohens’ house for dinner is disastrous. Arnold Cohen, Ezra’s father, can’t stop talking about Xibit; Shelley is constantly talking about her Black friends and can’t stop making everything about race and Black people that Amira becomes instantly awkward and triggered by them, seemingly bracing herself for the next out of touch thing they might say. Ezra is, of course, beyond embarrassed and mortified by every offensive, off-color thing his mother spouts out of her mouth, seemingly without ever thinking.
Granted, there are some bon mots in here occasionally, and these faux pas can have comedic laughs, but it quickly gets to feel trivial, superficial, and hamfisted pretty fast. Strangely, Ezra only ever meets the Mohammeds after deciding he wants to marry her and seeks their approval (taking them out to Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in the process, which feels like one joke away from taking them out for watermelons). Fatima Mohammed (Nia Long) seems dubious about a union and how it comes out of the blue, and the more militant Akbar Mohammed (Eddie Murphy) is deeply skeptical and basically gives Ezra shit for the entire movie. Of course, Ezra has his own foot-in-mouth disease, overtalking, being too nervous, and messes up a lot of this first crucial meeting.
But after some charming early laughs, it becomes abundantly clear that “You People” has been made for the broadest audience possible (awkwardly, the Hill side of the narrative—the hip-hop side of thing feels like it’s trying too hard and dozens of Drake references will probably fly over some audiences heads). After a few fun, off-color jokes, it becomes abundantly clear that “You People” will be playing it awfully safe.
Every time Hill and Murphy are on screen, the movie starts to really cook, and the comedic rhythms get faster and sharper—a sequence where Akbar takes Ezra to a street hoops basketball game in a Black neighborhood in order to humiliate him is pretty good. But just as the film seems like it might have some funny and intelligent things to say about culture clashes, societal expectations, and generational differences, the writing starts to fail the film, and things devolve into familiar comedy tropes, often at the expense of the Black people too.
In some of the cringier, clumsy physical comedy moments, Shelly accidentally snatches a Black woman’s wig with her nails, and she and Ezra accidentally set Akbar’s Muslim kufi—gifted to him from Louis Farrakhan— on fire. These dumb, situational comedy scenes mar the film, taking away from some of its earlier, more observational comedy and reminding of some of the broader writing in Barris’ ABC sitcoms.
Eventually, as Ezra and Amira hurtle closer to walking down the aisle together, their families seem to make their relationship impossible; Akbar trying to keep Ezra off balance at all times, and Shelley just can’t help but treat Amira like a doll or “toy” instead of a human being.
The film features a really big ensemble too, great actors like Molly Gordon, Deon Cole, Rhea Perlman, Anthony Anderson, Elliott Gould, Deon Cole, Andrea Savage and more, but aside from Mike Epps—who shows up Eddie Murphy in a crucial scene—none of them have anything to do (even Duchovny is mostly window-dressing).
It’s not like “You People” ever had nerves of steel or ever really featured uncomfortably sharp, confrontational writing. Still, it does flirt with a few clever and incisive things to say about modern love and family dynamics as they pertain to interracial relationships. But Barris’ film ultimately loses the courage of its convictions delivering something that turns deeply heavy-handed and eye-rolling in its hacky and contrived last act.
Murphy and Hill do lift the film often, the former being wryly sarcastic and meanspirited but cool, the latter finding much comedy in being overly vulnerable, earnest, and painfully sincere. But otherwise, this comedy has no safe spaces for anything resembling authentic human behavior, the kind that anchors comedy to feature truths that make laughs all the more lacerating. “You People” has potential in its premise and some of its actors, but this one should have been an indie made by an indie filmmaker with much more courage. Perhaps the reality is interracial families are pretty normal to the point of being boring. And in exaggerating all their differences for the sake of comedy, Hill and Barris miss the mark and inadvertently betray the entire notion, making for a wacky, shallow, contrived effort that certainly isn’t bringing anyone closer together, much less the audience to the movie’s intentions. [C-]
“You People” arrives on Netflix on January 27.