You People review – charmless Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner update
It’s only been a couple of months since Jonah Hill won over audiences with Stutz, his sharp and surprisingly stirring documentary about his therapist, Phil Stutz. The actor is back with another contribution to the Netflix canon, this one an unfortunate monument to the unexamined life.
Hill stars in, co-produced and co-wrote You People with Black-ish creator Kenya Barris. Strong as its streetwear and soundtrack game may be, the project lacks the discipline or specificity that makes a romantic comedy pop. Instead we have an updated yet out-of-date revisit of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by way of Meet The Parents. A nice Jewish boy and a nice Black girl like each other. A lot. And there’s the premise for the screenplay, a smorgasbord of time-killing and wannabe edgy jokes that dives headstrong into stereotypes. The whole enterprise strains to milk a relatively NBD situation for all the WTF it can.
Here’s the concept, if you can call it that: Ezra (Hill) and Amira (Lauren London), meet when Ezra mistakes a woman in an idling car for his Uber driver. Amira is an underemployed costume designer on her way to a job interview, and she calls racism. The two spar, then manage to crack each other up. The two share a passion for sneakers and hip-hop – and soon, each other. Goodbye, loneliness! Hello, matching streetwear outfits! It’s sheer bliss. And then … their parents enter the picture.
Ezra’s folks, Arnold and Shelley, are a pair of meddling Jews (David Duchovny and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, two of the many heavyweights in this star-studded, and star-crossed cast). They are elated when they meet their son’s new girlfriend, who is beautiful and patient and … it’s hard to say what else. Shelley is a virtue-signaling, challah-serving Jewish mom with a flair for putting her foot in her mouth, unable to stop herself from making comments about Black hair and Louis Farrakhan. “Our family is growing in such a cool and hip and funky way!” she exclaims. “We’re a family of color.”
Amira’s parents, Akbar and Fatima (Eddie Murphy and Nia Long), are Black Muslims who also happen to live in the area, all the better to ratchet up the tension. They do not like the cut of Ezra’s jib, which means Shelley’s cloying embrace has a match in Akbar’s incessant razzing of Ezra. He takes the kid who wants to marry his daughter to the Black barber shop, and the basketball court, if only to watch him squirm and renounce his intentions. For her part, Shelley brings Amira to a fancy predominantly white spa.
The microaggressions fly, but look past the Holocaust jokes and it’s all too evident that not much is happening beneath the surface. The overarching effect of sitting through You People is not unlike watching a Twitter timeline, staring down a smorgasbord of hot-button issues that come without the satisfaction of a through line. There are gags about vaccines, police brutality, Black Lives Matter and Yom Kippur. There is an elderly orthodontist who offers to examine Ezra’s penis. (To be fair, I cannot say I anticipated that last one.)
With high-octane friends like these, you’d think the production could skate by without setting off cringe alarms. Alas, Louis-Dreyfus is unrecognizably one-note, her spunk blotted out, perhaps, by the indignity of playing a central-casting Karen. Duchovny grumbles his way along – and should be commended for taking a bite of food during a dinner scene where nobody else bothers to pretend to be eating. Mercifully, Murphy adds a dose of sharpness to the project, wrapping his lines in a delivery so sleek and spirited you’d almost think they were funny. And as for the central couple? The one that just wants to get married, culture clash be damned? They’re nice. So nice. Too nice.
Their moods are determined by their parents, and it’s both disheartening and not at all surprising that their parents are the ones who engineer the couple’s inevitable late-second-act rupture and third-act redemption. Strong as their shared fondness for tie-dye athleisure may be, the two members of the couple lack agency, and, more unfortunately, an actual connection. It calls back to a moment in Stutz where Hill tells his therapist that he has a disease: “I have to avoid emotion by making jokes.”
For all its insistence that it’s a daring piece of social commentary, You People is, above all, a romance without a beating heart.