“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, playing an earnest romantic comedy lead for the first time in his career, also ups the ante: he’s a modest hipster, a socially awkward man who doesn’t always know how to stand up for himself. When he goes out on a date with a woman he met at the synagogue, he scoffs at his desire to host a pop culture podcast. “You’re a Jew from West LA,” she says dismissively. “What do you know about culture?”
Then there’s the requisite (but genius) meet-cute: Ezra climbs into a car driven by a black woman, Amira (Lauren London), mistaking her for an Uber driver. London, an intelligent and personable actor who has previously played supporting roles in films and TV shows, plays Amira, a confident, feisty young woman who works as a costume designer and doesn’t fall for fools. She seems way out of Ezra’s league, but the couple hit it off over lunch and soon start dating. Six months later, they decided to get married. But first Ezra must win over his parents: Fatima (Nia Long) and especially Akbar (Eddie Murphy), a radical Muslim who wears a T-shirt that says “Fred Hampton was murdered,” casually saying that ” I’m starting to hate the world more every day,” and a white, Jewish man doubts as he marries his daughter.
A modern-day riff on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” where the clash of races and cultures is more pointed, “You People” alternates between energetic set-pieces and angsty interludes of actors by a slick roster of comedians. Lost, unable to jump-start a lot of thin stretches of script.
The movie is at its best when director Kenya Barris (creator of ABC’s “Black-ish”), who also wrote the screenplay with Hill, gathers her large cast in the same room and lets them cut loose, heightening the characters’ cultural differences. Crudely to the surface. One of the film’s high points comes when Ezra brings Amira home to meet her parents, Shelly (a hilarious Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Arnold (a quiet, spacey David Duchovny). Shelley can’t stop admiring Amira for her dreads and earrings, and she brings up police brutality and how everyone should kneel for the national anthem as a casual topic of conversation, not just athletes. “I like your braids,” Arnold says to a scowling Amira. “Xzibit had braids. That show ‘Pimp My Ride?’ It was a big show.”
Things get worse when Ezra proposes to Amira. His mother, Shelly, is delighted. “We are now a family of color!” He shouts “We are the future!” But things don’t go well when Ezra secretly arranges a meeting with Amira’s parents at a fried chicken restaurant to ask for her hand in marriage. Nerves gets the worst of Ezra, who comes across as a bumbling, tongue-tied idiot. When he tells Akbar that he wants his permission to marry his daughter, Akbar firmly replies “You can try.”
The film’s best scene takes place at a dinner party where both sets of parents get to know each other, often creating six characters in the same shot. The polite conversation soon turns sour when Akbar explains that his kufi was given to him personally by Louis Farrakhan — something that doesn’t sit well with Shelley (her comedic slow-burn anger is one thing Louis-Dreyfus does better than most actresses. can act). Soon, the conversation turned to a debate over which genocide was worse: slavery or the Holocaust. Things get so heated, the scene ends with an actual fire.
Released in 1967, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was a huge mainstream hit designed to speak to the masses in a Cultural Revolution era, although it was criticized by some viewers as dated and old-fashioned. The movie was remade as “Approximately K” in 2005, which became a tableau of the original premise. The latter movie was aimed at broad, big laughs, for an audience that was supposedly much more receptive and liberal. “You People” is best when it does the same, though the introduction of the Jewish/Muslim angle gives the new film an extra edge, going beyond skin color and tapping into a more complex history of mutual hatred that’s deeper and more timely.
It’s too bad that, after 80 minutes of strong material, “You People” runs out of ideas and hits the same key of diminishing returns. Akbar tries to embarrass Ezra by convincing him to join a pickup basketball game, only to discover that the white man can jump. The men head 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. Shelly and Fatima host a bachelorette party in Palm Springs for Amira, where the movie resorts to silly slapstick for cheap laughs. And there are long scenes between Ezra and his bestie and podcast co-host Moe (a very charming Sam Jay) that allow the actors to trade witty ad-libs but add little to nothing but stretch the already long running time.
During the wedding dinner, things have gotten so bad within the family that even Ezra and Amir are questioning whether they should go through with the wedding. “You People” takes an unexpected dramatic turn in the last 20 minutes – the kind of trope some comedy-dramas use to make the case for their satire in good spirit: We’re just kidding! But the tonal shift derails the film, making bold humor that was previously a standup comic’s sharp, observational routine softened into an audience-friendly script, peppered with F-bombs for street cred. “You People” falters and loses its nerve when it matters most, never allowing its comedy to speak for itself, as if it’s afraid the people in the back row — or the recliner sofa — might miss the point.
“You People” will be available for streaming to Netflix subscribers starting January 27, 2023.