Take it from someone who knows: Interracial relationships in America are almost always weird in ways that are hard to plan for. Regardless of how well-meaning a person can be, any challenge to their baseline assumptions about life and the world is going to be uncomfortable and disorienting, and missteps will be made. There can be catharsis in making fun of this in conversation or art, and it can even be a channel for growth and moving past said difficulties — which is where the appeal of a movie like Netflix’s new comedy You People comes in.
A modern take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, You People wades into the difficulties and awkwardness of interracial romance, and the cultural exchange and conflict that comes with it. Directed by Kenya Barris (Black-ish) with a script by Barris and Jonah Hill, the film follows Ezra Cohen (Hill), a white Jewish guy who falls in love with Amira Mohammed (Lauren London), a Black Muslim woman. In a beat that feels fairly true to life, neither of them fully anticipates how weird their respective families will be about their relationship. Unfortunately, it’s surrounded by a film that does not feel so true; You People’s story feels assembled on the fly, an endless stream of vignettes with no real point to make but two hours of time to fill, ideally with cringe comedy.
Watching You People is a disorienting experience. Scenes don’t feel written or directed, merely suggested, like an improv show gone immediately off the rails. Every transition introduces another scenario where two characters have a forced misunderstanding that leads to awkward riffing until the scene arbitrarily ends. This approach is applied to all kinds of moments: When a member of the Cohens’ synagogue asks Ezra about his penis; when Ezra’s father (played by David Duchovny) babbles on about how much he loves Xzibit; when his mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) makes uncomfortably performative attempts to be inclusive; or the many, many times that Ezra pretends he is knowledgeable about Black culture and Amira’s father, Akbar (Eddie Murphy), calls him out on it.
If you’ve seen a bunch of Jonah Hill comedies, you can recognize this pattern — an awkward stammering and droning cadence that takes ignorance to its logical endpoint, as Hill’s characters bumble their way into a hole they can’t stop digging for themselves even when they know they should. It’s fun when the actor is a supporting character, less so when he’s one of the protagonists. Hill is able to effortlessly make a meal out of cringe comedy, but it’s not an appetizing one.
In this mode, You People comes across as both insincere as a whole, and disingenuous when it comes to Ezra’s character. All of these jokes require Ezra to stubbornly insist that he can hang with Amira’s Black family even though he continually shows he has no idea what he’s talking about — and yet You People is earnest in its portrayal of his romance with the far less fleshed-out Amira, who has to suffer through his ignorance and the discomfort his family causes her.
All of this is a shame, because even if the movie is barely directed, it is stacked with comedic legends, some of whom can actually get good laughs out of Hill’s signature mumblecore bullshitting. Scenes with Ezra’s podcast partner and best fried Mo (Sam Jay) are laid-back and casually funny, like in their segment that opens the movie, in which they each imagine their “ideal Barack Obama.” And even though Eddie Murphy plays Akbar in a cooly distant and annoyed manner, brief moments of mischievousness surface when paired with other comedians, like Mike Epps or Deon Cole, the latter of whom helps him riff on throwing a Tron-style wedding.
There’s this weird notion that good comedy is offensive, when in fact it’s empathetic. In order to make someone laugh and do it consistently, it’s necessary to understand something about them first. This is why the impulse behind a film like You People can be a good one, as comedy can make a lot of hay out of the misunderstandings people have about one another as they bumble toward understanding. You People, however, is mostly interested in ignorance, and as such it gets old fast. Because the most offensive comedy isn’t ignorant or bigoted, it’s simply boring.
You People is now available to stream on Netflix.