Netflix’s “You People,” a modern effort at something like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” from the creator of “Black-ish” and co-written by star Jonah Hill, is a magnificent miss, an assemblage of talent in quest of a real movie. It’s one small rewriting away from being a wide “Naked Gun”-style spoof of comedies that exploit racial prejudices and disparities. Most of those absurd movies feel more authentic than this romantic comedy, which rings so rarely true that it makes your skin crawl.
Nobody speaks like this. Nobody behaves like this.
And if a film is going to exploit racial disparities, as “You People” is so ready to do, it should at least attempt for honesty to make the gags feel less than superficial. Otherwise, it’s just toying with hot-button subjects, prejudices, and dumb bar jokes. There are so many bright individuals in “You People” that it’s almost astonishing how utterly unfunny this movie is (yet “Black-ish” was quite hilarious for a few years, and far sharper than this movie).
Hill portrays Ezra Cohen, the co-host of a podcast exploring racial disparities with a Black buddy named Mo (Sam Jay). It’s one of those “talk about life/issues” podcasts, but Barris and Hill’s script seems off from the start. It’s as if they never listened to any podcasts with racial issues, overwriting the segments with uncomfortable, rehearsed speech (when the whole idea is that these podcasts are casual, off-the-cuff conversations). It’s also a bad prelude to what’s to come. “See, this man has a decent Black friend,” the film appears to suggest. Don’t be concerned about him.”
Ezra meets Amira Mohammed (Lauren London) after he unintentionally gets into the incorrect car, believing it’s his Uber. Six months later, Ezra has chosen to marry Amira and has prepared to seek permission from her parents, Akbar (Eddie Murphy) and Fatima (Nia Long). Akbar instantly assesses Ezra and concludes that he is not the right guy for his daughter. He then tries to break Ezra by forcing him to participate in sitcom-style situations meant to make him fail, such as placing him on a basketball court, wearing the wrong gang color to a barbershop, or even accompanying him on his bachelor celebration trip.
Murphy performs everything as though he’s in a drama about racial differences. I’m fine with not winking at the camera, but so many other actors in this picture do it that it begins to feel like Murphy is in a different film entirely. It’s simply one of the big tonal challenges that elude Barris as a filmmaker, who never quite figured out what he was doing well enough to communicate it to his cast.
Nobody is on the same page, which creates a strange humorous disconnect from scene to scene and occasionally even inside the same beat.
Of course, in a film like “You People,” there has to be the opposite side of the coin, which is portrayed by Ezra’s parents, Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Arnold (David Duchovny). As Louis-Dreyfus plays Amira’s “other troublesome dad,” Duchovny generally takes a back seat with a few dry one-liners. To be sure, the social commentary component here is intriguing in that Shelley portrays one of those ladies who perceives Black culture in simply superficial terms. Late in the film, Amira alleges that Shelley treats her like a new toy, and I wish the film dared to delve more into that idea—how individuals like Shelley may be attracted by Black culture but never strive to understand it.
Hill and Barris are continually introducing fascinating concepts and then moving on to the easy, unfunny joke. The speech in “You People” seems like it came out of a machine meant to deliver funny punchlines from the start, especially in an early scene with unusual appearances from giants like Elliott Gould, Hal Linden, and Richard Benjamin. The film has an unnatural cadence that is so forced that it made me uncomfortable. Not only does the language seem fake, but the picture is poorly edited to deplete its humorous flow as well. Scenes are spliced together with flashy visuals that, while I believe are meant to be edgy, give it the structure of a sketch comedy show rather than a genuine movie.
The tragedy of “You People” is that it is a brilliant premise with a fantastic cast. It feels like we’ve been waiting for a comedy about the cultural tensions that occur when ethnically different couples marry, but this isn’t it. “You People” is just uninterested in any of the topics it raises, opting instead for the cheap chuckle or the inevitable heavy-handed debate. It’s basically two hours of lousy jokes looking for real characters. There are awful comedies all the time, but it hurts a bit more when a script is so off-key that it misses performers as truly brilliant and appealing as Hill, Murphy, and Louis-Dreyfus.