A staggeringly unfunny, scattershot, punch pulling, and ineffective satire from a lot of talents who should know better, You People squanders an interesting, boundary pushing premise by constantly taking the lowest, easiest road possible. Instead of a smart, reasoned, and scathing film about race, cultural appropriation, and family, director Kenya Barris and co-writer/star Jonah Hill deliver a flop sweat drenched, slapped together, two dimensional Meet the Parents knock off whose perceived edginess feels about two decades too late to seem fresh. It’s a film where something clearly went wrong during the production process, but there’s so much wrong with You People that it’s almost impossible to figure out where the fatal blow lies.
Ezra (Hill) is a successful broker who hates his soul sucking job. His big dream is to become a successful podcaster alongside his best friend Mo (Sam Jay). They host a show about “the culture,” with queer black woman Mo and Jewish hip-hop/black culture loving Ezra discussing their lives, loves, thoughts on race, and annoyances. Following a chance encounter, Ezra develops a crush on Amira (Lauren London), a black costume designer. After a few awkward, but memorable dates, Ezra and Amira fall in love. He wants to propose to Amira, but Ezra first wants to meet with her parents. Amira’s father, Akbar (Eddie Murphy), is a politically minded Muslim who finds Ezra’s attraction to his daughter a travesty. (Amira’s mother, Fatima, played by Nia Long, also isn’t too keen on it, but she makes such a little impact here that it almost doesn’t warrant mentioning.) Akbar is determined to break up the relationship, but the potential groom’s own family might beat him to the punch, since Ezra’s mother, Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), is a white liberal who tries way too hard to show her misplaced wokeness. (Ezra’s father, Arnold, played by David Duchovny, is also problematic, but is as underdeveloped a character as Fatima is, and he’s pretty much only on hand to make repeatedly unfunny jokes about how Xzibit is the only black celebrity he values or recognizes.)
Instead of a witty, perceptive Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner scenario filtered through a lens of modern social commentary and wit, You People devolves very quickly into a badly assembled bit of unoriginal cringe comedy that’s devoid of inspiration and timeliness. The punchline to every scene of You People can be figured out as soon as the bit starts, dragging things out to repeatedly limp, predictable conclusions as hackneyed as the “white people talk like this/black people talk like this” stand-up tropes that have been parodied to death. The only moments in You People that feel like they aren’t from a script that has been in mothballs since the late 90s are dreadfully unfunny, seemingly tacked on references to vaccinations and the U.S. Capitol riots. The rom-com elements where it’s just Ezra and Amira trying to figure things out on their own away from their respective families are the best moments here, especially about five minutes during the climax where they finally say what they always meant to say to each other. The rest of You People feels like a two-hour long episode of The Neighborhood with less energy, no focus, and an R-rating.
The script from Barris and Hill is so staggeringly unfunny that I started wondering if You People was meant to be a comedy in the first place. It’s so forced, corny, and convoluted that it almost plays like anti-comedy, only without any bite or signs of life. But the script is only one of many problems with You People. Barris’ direction is static and lifeless, with some of the most bizarre scene transitions in recent memory. (These colourful old school hip-hop vibes also feel like something out of the 90s.) Threads are introduced and abandoned almost constantly, and the only thing that sustained my interest was trying to wonder if these gaping holes and inconsistencies were the result of rewrites, bad improv, poor test screenings, or extensive re-editing and reshoots. (Seriously, take a look at the number of familiar faces who show up for just a scene or two and think about how much more of the movie they used to be in before something obviously changed the film’s direction.) There’s not a single thing in You People that is on point, save for London’s performance, which is the closest thing Barris’ film has to a win.
Every cast member acts like they’re inhabiting their own movie with a different tone. Hill’s shy, bumbling protagonist is thoroughly unlikeable at every turn, not because he’s a culture vulture, but because he lacks any shred of self-awareness or genuine empathy. Murphy’s grumpy old black man routine is a miscalculation. Played with such a straight face that it seems like Murphy is sleepwalking through his performance, Akbar is nothing more than a string of angry black Muslim cliches that are as unsubtle as Ezra’s Jew who wants to be a person of colour cliches. But in the race to the bottom here, it’s the usually reliable Dreyfus who shockingly gives the worst performance. Her turn as the overly eager Shelley is the only thing in the film that has any degree of energy, but the character’s unconscious biases loop back on themselves and become actually racist instead of merely hinting at these tendencies. It’s a disgusting character (albeit the most depressingly believable one) in an already drowning movie.
You People is a movie where everyone’s problems could be easily solved with one fix. It’s clear that Amira is close with her family, and that’s great. But Ezra is so perpetually embarrassed and ashamed of his folks that one wonders why he doesn’t just distance himself from them. The entirety of You People hinges on buying into the fact that these people can’t distance themselves from their families, and nothing about that works if one person clearly hates their’s and no progress is made along the way whatsoever.
Just as bad as the film’s willful disregard to engage with subjects of race, religion, or societal inequality is the fact that both Ezra and Amira’s families are extremely privileged, making the entire of culture clash at the heart of You People ring hollow. A much more interesting take on this story would be to have at least one of these families be struggling financially, but no, that would require this film to actually have a brain and some compassion for people. They both have everything they could ever want out of life, so all You People is left with are a bunch of stale jokes. These are rich people so insulated and removed from any sort of real struggle at this point that they all sound conceited and arrogant. Who cares if they ever agree? None of these people will learn anything. So much has happened to minorities communities in just the past few years, that willfully removing both families from any sort of struggle is a shortsighted cop out that places mainstream, lowest common denominator acceptance over any sort of complexity.
You People expends maximum effort for no gain whatsoever, but on the bright side, at least it isn’t arrogant enough to position itself as a project that’s somehow going to “solve racism.” It’s such a dull and leaden project to sit through, that I started thinking about how I would much rather watch a documentary where everyone on and off screen that was involved with the making of You People would just sit down in front of a camera and offer up their unfiltered thoughts on race. It probably wouldn’t be funny, and it might lead to some uncomfortable, problematic places, but it definitely wouldn’t be as dull as You People.
You People streams on Netflix starting Friday, January 27, 2023.
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