In the nine years since “Black-ish” premiered on ABC (and subsequently launched a galaxy of spinoffs), Kenya Barris’ comedic worldview has become increasingly clear. Virtually all of his projects focus on the interactions between well-off Black people and well-intentioned but clueless white liberals, often mining comedy from the blind spots where both groups manage to be hilariously wrong. His commitment to exploring every angle of this premise is just as complete as Larry David’s fascination with life’s minor inconveniences — and he’s just as good at it.
His feature directorial debut, “You People,” sees him exploring the same themes with the biggest cast he’s ever had at his disposal, and the result is one of the high points of his career. “You People” deserves plenty of credit for mocking white faux-liberalism and Black anti-semitism with equal abandon and even more credit for showing that Eddie Murphy still has plenty of comic genius left in the tank. But its biggest achievement might be simply existing as a star-studded, big-budget adult comedy in an era where those words are seldom uttered in the same sentence. It’s the kind of movie we keep complaining that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore — and a fun reminder of why it should.
Ezra (Jonah Hill, who co-wrote the film with Barris) is a stockbroker with lofty dreams of being a professional podcaster. Like most guys with podcasting aspirations, he doesn’t want to talk about anything in particular. He just wants to quit his boring corporate job and get paid to share his unfiltered thoughts on music, movies, sports, sneakers, and just about anything else that crosses his mind.
Of course, that’s completely unacceptable to his parents. His overbearing mother Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is always trying to set him up with a nice Jewish girl, though his inability to fit in at stuffy Brentwood social functions stops her from making much progress. But his life takes a turn for the better when a ride-share mixup leads to him inadvertently meeting the girl of his dreams: Amira (Lauren London). Ezra quickly bonds with the young Black costume designer over their similar taste in fashion and music, and it only takes one romantic montage for them to start calling each other “boo.”
There’s just one problem with the budding relationship: neither wants to introduce their new lover to their insane family. And both of their concerns are probably well-founded. Ezra knows that his mother is never going to like any girl that she didn’t hand-pick. And Amira’s Black Nationalist father Akbar (Eddie Murphy) would be livid if she ever dated someone who wasn’t Muslim. Bringing home a white Jewish guy is out of the question.
But love eventually prevails, and Ezra and Amira decide to grit their teeth and attempt the dreaded meet-the-parents dinners. Shelley immediately alienates Amira with her ham-fisted attempts to shoehorn police brutality into every conversation, but that doesn’t deter Ezra from his realization that he wants to marry this girl. He invites her parents out for fried chicken to ask for their blessing to marry their only daughter, and that plan goes about as well as it sounds like it would. But while Akbar makes it very clear that he’s no fan of Ezra, he ultimately says he can “try” to marry his daughter before letting out an evil laugh.
Ezra does try — and succeeds — but the newly engaged couple quickly realizes that their problems are just getting started. Their initial awkward encounters with each other’s parents were nothing compared to the shit that goes down when the families meet. Akbar introduces himself to Ezra’s Jewish parents by mentioning his admiration for Louis Farrakhan, and the conversation quickly turns into a lively discussion about the differences between slavery and the Holocaust.
The wedding planning forces the two families to keep spending time together, but the relationships don’t exactly improve. Akbar is constantly trying to humiliate Ezra by inviting him into stereotypically “Black” social situations and making sure that he’s always ill-prepared. But the only thing worse than his outright hostility might be Shelley’s endlessly cringe attempts to prove that she’s “cool” with Black culture. As the wedding approaches, neither Ezra nor Amira is sure they can go through with it — sickness and health are easy enough, but dealing with crazy in-laws is another thing entirely.
Hill and London are perfectly competent in their roles, but the parents are the real stars of the show. Louis-Dreyfus is so predictably excellent in everything she touches that it’s almost dull to write about her. But her performance as the kind of woman who would put a BLM sign in her front yard while quietly opposing a new low-income housing development in her neighborhood is yet another home run in a career full of them. Plus, “Seinfeld” fans can have a nice chuckle at the image of Elaine married to a podiatrist (David Duchovny) 30 years after “The Conversion” aired.
And if nothing else, “You People” provides a fantastic blueprint for how directors should be utilizing Murphy. His bone-dry performance stands out amid the goofy fan service that has defined much of his 21st-century output (“Dolemite Is My Name” notwithstanding, of course). At 61, Murphy radiates the kind of distinguished cool that’s impossible for anyone who isn’t a bona fide movie star to fake. His comedic chops are still there, and Barris seems to have stumbled onto the discovery that a microscopic amount of his humor goes a long way. Murphy can elicit a laugh with the subtlest twitch of an eyebrow, and most of the time that’s all he needs. Take away all of the silly voices and inane slapstick he’s been doing in recent years, and it’s easy to imagine him having the kind of dapper third act that used to be a rite of passage for aging leading men.
“You People” ends up being more of a feel-good rom-com and love letter to Los Angeles than a truly biting satire, but you’d have to hate fun to complain about that. It may not be an all-encompassing panacea for America’s racial tensions, but its message is universal: Nobody knows what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but we can all recognize stupidity when we see it.
“You People” opens in select theaters on Friday, January 20 before streaming on Netflix on January 27.