Talk about juggling a hot potato. Is a broad-based mainstream comedy really the place to debate the rise in animosity between Blacks and Jews? Why not, as long as the laughs are real-world insightful and done to debunk ethnic stereotypes and expose raw feelings simmering inside the racial divide.
“You People,” now on Netflix, starts off promisingly as just such a comic provocation. It’s a shame that the movie loses its nerve and settles for tossing around softballs that aim to spin the mixed-marriage cliches of 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” into the hip-hop era.
The result is a bi-racial romcom starring Eddie Murphy as a Black and proud poppa who does not want his daughter (Lauren London) to marry a no-prospects Jewish loner (Jonah Hill) who tries to pass off an inexpensive engagement bauble as his grandmother’s Holocaust ring. Yikes!
“You People” also marks the feature directing debut for “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, who co-wrote the script with Hill. As finance drone Ezra Cohen, Hill longs to express himself as a podcaster. He meets up with Amira Mohammed (London), a costume designer he mistakes for his Uber driver. That awkward moment develops into an easy, teasing relationship.
Race is hardly a factor, until their respective families butt in. Ezra’s mom, Shelley (the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus), leans hard on her alleged street cred, praising Amira’s hair and fashion. “We’re a family of color now,” she enthuses, running amok with fake liberalism. Ezra’s dad (a loopy David Duchovny), happily owns up to his obsession with Xzibit on “Pimp My Ride.”
So far so conventional. Amira’s parents, who are Muslim, ice out Ezra from the get-go. Mom Fatima (Nia Long) is still easier than Big Daddy Akbar, played by Murphy with an authoritarian rigidity that hardly allows the comedy icon to bring his edgy humor to the party.
Tensions explode at a dinner for both sets of future in-laws. Akbar wears a kufi given to him by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, prompting Shelley to lose her pasted-on smile. “Do you know what he thinks of the Jews?” In short order, more than the kufi goes down in slapstick flames as the parents start comparing slavery to the Holocaust.
Barris has referred to his movie as “the Oppression Olympics—it’s who had it worse.” He’s right and for a while “You People” shows the fangs it could wield if it retained the courage of its convictions, however lightly held.
That social sting is also felt in the moments between Ezra and his Black friend Mo (the knockout Sam Jay, of HBO’s “Pause with Sam Jay”), his partner on the podcast on which he riffs about racial conflicts that feel as disturbing as the antisemitic tirades of Kanye West and Kyrie Irving.
Mo tells her white partner that she doesn’t see an easy fix. “We can’t forget what you all did, and what you’re all still doing.” Ouch! What a bummer that the ouch factor vanishes at midpoint, replaced by a slick, safe, audience-pandering cringe-fest that feels like it was built to offend no one. We get the bachelor party in Vegas that feels like a relic from decades past. Ditto the bridal shower that intensifies the culture clash in ways that define predictable.
“You People” tantalizes us with hints of the cutting social satire that might been. Sadly, what’s left on screen are old jokes trying to pass as new ones. And that’s no laughing matter.