While the idea of systemic racism is a generally accepted fact in American society, a more indefinable concept is the cultural biases that people hold. It can be easy to spot someone who wears their racism on their sleeves, but sometimes a prejudice only reveals itself when someone is confronted with a world that is not their own.
This idea is attempted to be played for laughs in the new Netflix comedy You People. Ezra (Jonah Hill) is a 35-year-old stockbroker/aspiring podcaster who has yet to meet the right woman, much to the chagrin of his mother, Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). He has a meet-cute with Amira (Lauren London), a graphic designer, when he mistakes her car for an Uber.
While Ezra and Amira bond quickly over a number of shared likes, it’s the ingrained beliefs of their parents that threaten to stand in their way. Shelley and dad Arnold (David Duchovny) are a Jewish couple who either rely on Black stereotypes or go overboard in their attempts to relate to Amira. Meanwhile, Amira’s parents, Akbar (Eddie Murphy) and Fatima (Nia Long), want her to stay true to her Black Muslim roots, and do all they can to discourage the relationship.
Directed by Kenya Barris and written by Barris and Hill, the goal of the film – to shed a funny light on how awkward it can be when people of different races spend time in each other’s spaces – is clear, but the execution is sorely lacking.
The first mistake they make is that the film is almost exclusively focused on Ezra; while Amira gets a small introduction prior to meeting Ezra, there’s never a true exploration of who she is or what she wants outside of her relationship with him. Consequently, their bond is never believable; there appears to be little chemistry existing between the two, and any moments that might endear them to the audience are yada-yadaed for the sake of expediency.
The second is the strange way in which the film’s biggest star – Murphy – is withheld until 20-30 minutes into the movie, introduced in a lackadaisical way, and then given precious few opportunities to showcase his comic skills. Barris and Hill can never seem to find a great way to use the legendary comedian, giving him tepid scenarios that don’t come close to eliciting the big laughs for which he is known.
Ultimately, the film feels more like a series of barely-connected situations than a cohesive story. Any incisiveness that might come from putting the two racially- and religiously-disparate families together is lost because the filmmakers constantly jump from scene to scene in search of laughs. You’d think that Barris, who knows the value of establishing characters from sitcoms like Black-ish, would have figured out how to do that by now, but the film flails its way through its nearly two-hour running time.
Hill, as star, co-writer, and co-producer, is obviously the driving force behind the film, and he is given plenty of time to dole out his brand of comedy. London is likable enough, but we never get to know her character well enough to fully judge her performance. The wealth of talent on the supporting side – including Murphy, Louis-Dreyfus, Long, Duchovny, Sam Jay, Rhea Perlman, Molly Gordon, Deon Cole, Andrea Savage, Elliott Gould, and Mike Epps – is mostly wasted.
Finding comedy in race relations has been done many times in movies and on TV, and can be a winner if done properly. The story of You People can never find its footing, opting for a haphazard approach that doesn’t make good use of its greatest assets.
You People debuts on Netflix on January 27.