‘You People’ Is a Mix of Misfired Satire and Cheap Laughs
Writer-producer Kenya Barris, who successfully explored race relations and topical issues using humor for eight seasons of “Black-ish,” tries his hand at a romantic comedy with his feature directorial debut, “You People,” and the results are a mixed bag. Barris combines forces with Jonah Hill, who not only took on co-writing and co-producing duties, but also co-stars alongside Lauren London as one-half of a Los Angeles couple whose happily ever after is threatened by cultural differences and their ignorant parents (Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
Barris and Hill really drive home just how huge Los Angeles is, as Ezra Cohen (Hill), a white Jewish finance guy from the affluent Brentwood neighborhood, and Amira Mohammed (London), a Black Muslim costume designer whose family calls Baldwin Hills home, might as well be from different planets. However, the pair unexpectedly hit it off after he mistakes her for an Uber driver. Although on the surface they seem incredibly mismatched, Ezra and Amira just vibe together, and Hill and London have an easy chemistry.
Of course, the conflict comes when their parents are brought into the mix: Ezra’s mother Shelley (Louis-Dreyfus) and father Arnold (David Duchovny), and Lauren’s father Akbar (Murphy) and mother Fatima (Nia Long). Barris and Cohen do a decent job of exposing the faults in both families. The Cohens come across as tone-deaf, condescending white liberals, while the Mohammeds seem to enjoy watching them squirm and speak fondly of Louis Farrakhan. And, yes, there’s a debate about whether the Holocaust or slavery caused more suffering over dinner.
But the real conflicts that transpire post-engagement are not between the parents, but between Ezra and Akbar and, alternately, Amira and Shelley. The funniest scenes in the film involve Akbar testing Ezra, such as when he takes him to a Black barbershop and almost gets him beat up by a gang member for wearing the wrong color, or when he unexpectedly crashes his Vegas bachelor party. While Ezra’s being in touch with Black culture is one of the things that make him attractive to Amira — he co-hosts a social commentary podcast with his best friend, a gay Black woman (Sam Jay) — Akbar is determined to expose him as a phony, and as humorous as his interactions with Ezra are, there is a mean-spiritedness to a lot of what he does.
While Shelley is not malicious like Akbar, she is problematic in her own way. She speaks of future biracial grandkids like they would be fashion accessories, and she wears down the patience of Amira and the viewer with her misguided attempts to bond. Examples of this include her trying to use AAVE in normal conversation and embarrassing her future DIL after she mistakenly believes her to be a victim of a racist slight at a spa. While Barris and Hill do a great job of showing what benevolent racism looks like, these Shelley scenes are mostly too cringey to be funny.
Yes, the point of a lot of these scenes is to make the viewer uncomfortable, as racism and prejudice are uncomfortable, but too often Barris and Hill go for the cheap joke or gag, such as when Shelley accidentally sets Akbar’s kufi (a gift from Farrakhan) on fire, and, later, loses her balance and rips Amira’s friend’s whig off of her head, making the poor woman cry. Other jokes are beaten to death, such Shelley and Arnold repeatedly trying to paint themselves as allies by praising Black artists, and the obvious one involving a white character almost saying the N-word.
Still, there are some genuinely hilarious moments in “You People”: the aforementioned one-on-one scenes between Hill and Murphy, a lot of the dialogue between Hill and Jay, as well as cameos from extended members of Amira’s family played by Mike Epps and Kym Whitley. Finally, the heart of the film, the romance between Ezra and Amira, is well-written and feels very natural and relatable as the pair go through highs and lows during what becomes an increasingly laborious march to the altar. Even the inevitable scene in which they rethink their relationship feels authentic, as it comes from a place of exhaustion and maturity.
“You People” begins streaming Jan. 27 on Netflix.