A culture-clash comedy that briefly flirts with being a rom-com, TV mogul Kenya Barris’ feature directorial debut, You People, is a cut above the usual Netflix fare. But only just. After a rather delightful opening act in which Jonah Hill’s laid-back podcaster Ezra and Lauren London’s aspiring stylist Amira cross paths and embark on a genuinely involving love story, You People struggles to find its identity before settling into the safest nook that it can find: Hollywood schmaltz.
The communities that they come from might always be at each other’s necks; their women might clash with other women and the men with other men, but everyone will likely agree on one thing, You People says; that movies are considerably better with happy endings. At least, that’s the audience Barris is targeting with his first film.
Together with Hill, he’s crafted a screenplay that, for at least 45 minutes, brings back memories of Judd Apatow’s heyday in all the best ways. The dialogue is whip-smart, the back-and-forth has the spontaneity that can only be achieved with talented improvisers, and even the most broadly comedic scenes convey crucial information about the characters.
Consider Ezra and Amira’s meet cute on a hot LA morning. He absent-mindedly enters her parked car having mistaken it for his Uber, and she, very understandably, almost beats him up. Ezra tries to tell Amira that both she and her car match the description of his ride on the app, but she’s having none of it. She accuses him of racism, given his inability to tell her apart from the Black driver on his Uber app, but this hits a nerve. Extremely mortified and profusely apologetic, Ezra, in an act of good-faith, offers to help her with directions to wherever she’s going. They hit it off on the way, and before we know it, he’s asked her out on a proper date.
As a genre, comedy famously doesn’t travel. Which is why the biggest hits are often the ones that strike a universal chord. A stinging examination of interracial relationships in contemporary America might be difficult to digest for most audiences, but an observational comedy about idiosyncratic families is immensely relatable.
And this is the angle that Barris leans into as Amira and Ezra take their relationship to the next level, and the movie enters its second act. An unusually muted Eddie Murphy enters the picture as Amira’s devout Muslim dad, Akbar. He’s instantly wary of Ezra, who appears to be in active rebellion against his Jewish heritage; Hill has retained his bleach-blonde hair and tattoos. “Do you hang out in the hood all the time or do you only come here for our food and women? Murphy deadpans in one scene, as he pushes back against Ezra’s efforts to woo him.
Ezra himself seems to be in conflict with his parents, particularly his mother Shelley, played by Julia Louis Dreyfus. In her first meeting with Amira, she overcommits to the progressive identity that she has curated for herself, and starts talking about Magic Johnson, Black Lives Matter, and her hatred for Gone with the Wind (before criticising it was considered the socially responsible thing to do). It’s virtue-signalling, but in a cute way. Not like Bradley Whitford in Get Out.
But the two families’ attempts to bond over shared oppression only ends up highlighting their differences and embarrassing their children. Akbar, for instance, can’t shut up about his grandmother who used to pick cotton, and Ezra’s dad, played by David Duchovny, seems to be intent on steering every conversation towards the rapper Xzibit. Shelley, on the other hand, can’t stop herself from feeling outraged on Amira’s behalf.
“She’s, like, an idiot, but she means well,” Ezra says about his mother, as Amira’s patience begins to run out. She’s tired of being treated like a new toy; symbolic proof of her future mother-in-law’s wokeness. She wants to be treated like a person first and a Black woman later. Ezra, too, is deeply irritated by Akbar’s unwillingness to accept him for who he is; a ‘white boy’ who happens to love his daughter.
Amira and Ezra’s families mean no harm, and unlike Shelley, Akbar isn’t at all concerned about being politically correct. But despite the younger generation’s attempts to build bridges and allow love to conquer all, the cultural and racial baggage between the two communities, the movie suggests, makes it almost impossible for two people from radically different backgrounds to sustain a relationship in modern-day America. And it is in this specificity that You People finds its most universal theme. This could be a movie about anybody.
Director – Kenya Barris
Cast – Jonah Hill, Eddie Murphy, Lauren London, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Duchovny, Nia Long
Rating – 3.5/5