“I’m starting to think I’m never going to meet a woman who understands me,” laments Ezra (Jonah Hill), a 35-year-old man with a desk job at a brokerage firm and zero romantic prospects. Ezra is a bit of a hipster: He wears his hair in a ponytail, collects Nike sneakers and sports elaborate tattoos on his arms. But Hill, cast as an earnest romantic comedy lead for the first time in his career, amps up the character’s likability, too: He’s a modest hipster, a socially awkward mensch who doesn’t always know how to stand up for himself. When he goes out on a date with a woman he meets at the synagogue, she ends up mocking his desire to host a pop culture podcast. “You’re a Jew from West L.A.,” she says dismissively. “What do you know about culture?”
Then comes a requisite (but genial) meet-cute: Ezra climbs into a car driven by a Black woman, Amira (Lauren London), mistaking her for an Uber driver. London, a winsome and personable actor previously relegated to supporting roles in films and TV shows, plays Amira as an assured, defiant young woman who works as a costume designer and doesn’t suffer fools. She seems way out of Ezra’s league, but the couple hits it off over lunch and soon start dating. Six months later, they decide to get married. But first Ezra must win over her parents: Fatima (Nia Long) and especially Akbar (Eddie Murphy), a hardline Muslim who wears T-shirts that read “Fred Hampton Was Murdered,” casually says things such as “I’m starting to hate the world more and more each day,” and is instantly suspicious of a white, Jewish man courting his daughter.
A modern-day riff on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in which clashes of race and culture are even more pointed, “You People” alternates between energetic set-pieces by a nimble roster of comedians and intervals of tedium during which the actors seem lost, unable to jump-start the script’s plentiful thin stretches.
The movie fares best when director Kenya Barris (creator of ABC’s “Black-ish”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Hill, gathers his large cast in the same room and lets them cut loose, allowing the characters’ cultural differences to rise rudely to the surface. One of the film’s high points comes when Ezra brings Amira home to meet his parents, Shelley (a hilarious Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Arnold (a laid-back, spacey David Duchovny). Shelley can’t stop complimenting Amira on her hair and earrings, and she brings up police brutality and how everyone, not just athletes, should kneel for the National Anthem as casual topics of conversation. “I like your braids,” Arnold tells a squirming Amira. “Xzibit had braids. Remember that show ‘Pimp My Ride?’ That was a great show.”
Things fare even worse when Ezra proposes to Amira. His mother Shelley is ecstatic. “We are a family of color now!” she exclaims. “We are the future!” But things don’t fare as well when Ezra secretly arranges a meeting at a fried chicken restaurant with Amira’s parents to ask for her hand in marriage. Nerves get the worst of Ezra, who comes off as a bumbling, tongue-tied idiot. When he tells Akbar he would like his permission to marry his daughter, Akbar replies with a steely “You can try.”
The film’s best scene takes place at a dinner in which both sets of parents get to know each other, with all six characters often framed in the same shot. Polite conversation soon turns edgy after Akbar explains his kufi was personally given to him by Louis Farrakhan — something that doesn’t sit well with Shelley (her comedic slow-burn anger is one of the things Louis-Dreyfus can play better than most actresses). Soon, the conversation has deteriorated into a debate about which genocide was worse: slavery or the Holocaust. Things get so heated, the scene culminates with an actual fire.
Released in 1967, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was a huge mainstream hit designed to speak to the masses during a culturally revolutionary era, even though it was criticized by some viewers as being dated and old-fashioned. The movie was loosely remade in 2005 as “Guess Who,” which turned the tables on the original premise. The latter movie aimed for broader, big laughs, made for an audience that was supposedly far more accepting and liberal. “You People” fares best when it’s doing the same thing, although the introduction of the Jewish/Muslim angle gives the new film an extra edge, going far beyond skin color and tapping into a much more complicated history of mutual antipathy that feels deeper and timelier.
It’s too bad, then, that after 80 minutes of strong material, “You People” runs out of ideas and keeps banging on the same keys to diminishing returns. Akbar tries to embarrass Ezra by convincing him to join a pickup basketball game, only to discover the white man can jump. The men head off to Las Vegas for a bachelor party, with Akbar as an unexpected crasher, hoping to catch his future son-in-law in an embarrassing situation. Shelley and Fatima host a bachelorette party in Palm Springs for Amira, in which the movie resorts to silly slapstick for cheap laughs. And there are long scenes between Ezra and his bestie and podcast co-host Mo (the immensely appealing Sam Jay) that allow the actors to trade witty ad-libs but add little other than to stretch the already lengthy running time.
By the time of the wedding night dinner, things have deteriorated so badly between the families that even Ezra and Amira are questioning whether they should go through with the marriage. “You People” takes an unwelcome dramatic turn in its last 20 minutes — the kind of trope some comedy-dramas use to make the case that their satire is meant to be taken in good spirits: We’re just kidding! But the tonal shift derails the film, making the daring humor that had preceded it feel like a standup comic’s edgy, observant routine that had been softened into an audience-friendly screenplay, one peppered with F-bombs for street cred. “You People” fizzles out and loses its nerve when it matters the most, not allowing its comedy to speak for itself, as if it were afraid people in the back row — or the recliner sofa — might miss the point.
“You People” will be available for streaming to Netflix subscribers beginning Jan. 27, 2023.
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