The cultural appropriation favored by Ezra (Jonah Hill, left) does not impress Akbar (Eddie Murphy), the father of his girlfriend, in “You People.”
Everything that doesn’t work in the disappointing Netflix culture-clash romantic comedy “You People” is crystallized in the scene in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ wealthy white and Jewish Shelley Cohen welcomes her son Ezra (Jonah Hill) and Ezra’s Black girlfriend Amira (Lauren London) to her posh Brentwood home.
“Oh my gosh, you are so beautiful,” gushes Shelley. “I love your hair, LOVE your fingernails, look at these rings …” A moment later, Shelley says, “I want to put this out to the group and see how it lands. I think the police are and always have been f—– up towards Black people, and I for one hate it.”
Ezra’s father, Arnold (David Duchovny), soon chimes in by telling Amira, “I like your braids. Xzibit had braids. Do you remember that show, ‘Pimp My Ride’? That was a blast.”
Netflix presents a film directed by Kenya Barris and written by Barris and Jonah Hill. Rated R (for language throughout, some sexual material and drug content). Running time: 117 minutes. Now showing in theaters and available Jan. 27 on Netflix.
Subtlety, take a seat, you won’t be needed today. Shelley fawns over Amira as if she’s some sort of exotic pet, while Arnold immediately takes a pop culture dive to prove he’s, you know, down. These two people in “You People” are so condescendingly, offensively terrible, they’re like the family in “Get Out” minus the murder.
This is the tone throughout the film, which sinks under the weight of its obviousness and a consistently heavy-handed approach, despite the sometimes stylish and well-paced direction from Kenya Barris (“black-ish”) and an incredibly talented cast. Every once in a while, the screenplay by Barris and Hill serves up a sly observation about class, culture and racial differences, and the actors are so good they know how to wring a few chuckles out of the material — but time and again, “You People” uses a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel.
We first meet Ezra as he and his best friend Mo (the brilliant Sam Jay) are doing their “The Mo & E-Z Show” podcast, which must be doing pretty well considering the level of equipment and the flood of comments pouring in. Wearing an Ice Cube T-shirt, Ezra riffs with Mo about Black culture, and they’re pretty great together — but it turns out this is just a hobby for Ezra, who works full time as a broker.
Ezra climbs into what he thinks is his Uber outside of his firm, but it’s actually a private car driven by Lauren London’s Amira, who had pulled over because she was lost. This is a classic “Meet Cute.” In a matter of a few scenes, they fall in love, we’re segueing into another trope — what Roger Ebert called the “Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude,” with Ezra and Amira sharing good times and falling in love to the sounds of “Stay High” by Childish Gambino and Brittany Howard and then “Best Part” by H.E.R. — followed by a title card telling us it’s SIX MONTHS LATER, and time for Ezra and Amira to meet each other’s families.
Ezra (Jonah Hill) and Amira (Lauren London) fall in love after meeting cute in an Uber mixup.
As noted, Ezra’s parents Shelley and Arnold are clueless white liberals who behave as if they’ve never met a Black person in their lives, even though they’re in their early 60s and have led presumably rich and sophisticated lives. (I know: That’s not entirely impossible in this world. Still.)
As for Amira’s parents: Eddie Murphy lends his giant star presence and delivers a grounded, deadpan performance as Akbar, a Muslim convert who sees just about everything in terms of black and white, while the wonderful Nia Long is given less to do but still resonates as Amira’s mother, Fatima. They meet Ezra for the first time at Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles, where Akbar says, “So do you hang out in the hood all the time, or do you just come up here for our food and our women?” and it’s downhill from there. Ezra sputters on about how he wants to marry Amira, and they’ll have mixed race children, and “mixed race people are really awesome. You have Mariah, Derek Jeter and of course you have the GOAT, he was mixed race … our guy, the legend, Malcolm X.”
“OUR guy?” comes the response from Fatima.
For long stretches of time, “You People” hits the same two notes. Shelley tries WAY too hard to bond with Amira, e.g., singing loudly with Andra Day’s “Rise Up” as they’re driving to a spa day, where Shelley makes a big deal over a perceived racial incident, while Akbar is determined to grind Ezra into seeing he has no idea what it means to be Black, despite all his cultural appropriation. Various subplots are no less nuanced, as when Amira makes a presentation during a job interview to some Harvard grads (they’re actually wearing Harvard sweatshirts) who think Amira also went to Harvard. When she explains she didn’t go to Harvard, she went to Howard, they’re dumbfounded; it’s clear they’ve never heard of this “Howard” place. Come on.
Right up until an ending straight out of a mediocre rom-com from the early 2000s,“You People” never feels like more than a series of stitched-together scenes making some legitimate but obvious points about racial differences. It doesn’t help that Ezra is kind of an idiot — a well-meaning idiot, but still — and that while Jonah Hill is a splendid talent, he plays Ezra in such a low-key manner. Murphy’s Akbar is probably the most complex and interesting character in the film, while Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ enormous comedic talents are wasted on a one-note character who is so irritatingly ignorant you just want to be somewhere else, as soon as possible. People like the people in “You People” are not the funniest people we know.