“You People” relies on cringe-inducing moments as the crux of its comedy, as a Jewish guy and a Black Muslim woman (neither of them particularly observant) get engaged, then endure the push and pull of their respective families. A topnotch cast – down to the tiny cameos – can’t fully redeem material that gets lost somewhere between satire and sitcom as assembled by star Jonah Hill and director Kenya Barris.
Hill and Barris (“Black-ish”) share credit for the screenplay, which attracted “Saturday Night Live”-alums-made-good Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Eddie Murphy in the pivotal roles of his eager-to-appear-liberal mother and her disapproving father. Yet the story unfolds in fits and starts, jumping forward to get to the most fertile comedic territory while montage-ing its way through the central relationship after its meet-cute origins.
That begins when Hill’s Ezra, who works in finance before chucking it all to pursue his dream of hosting a podcast, plops into what he thinks is his Uber, which is actually just Amira (Lauren London) sitting in her car.
A whirlwind courtship and “Six months later” chyron after that, his parents (dad is played by David Duchovny) are meeting Amira for the first time, while her dad, Akbar, and mom (Nia Long) are fretting about what their daughter is doing.
Inevitably, the two families get together at a dinner that goes awkwardly awry, from Shelley, Ezra’s tone-deaf mom, exulting about seeing Magic Johnson at Gelson’s to Amira’s parents expressing their admiration for controversial minister Louis Farrakhan.
The fidgety Ezra doesn’t fare much better when he seeks the blessing of Amira’s parents by taking them to the soul-food restaurant Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, prompting Akbar to pointedly ask if he frequents the neighborhood, or “Do you just come up here for our food and women?”
The main problem is that as constructed, “You People” can’t seem to decide if it wants to be edgy and tackle lingering challenges interracial couples can face – even now, 56 years after the year that saw “Loving v. Virginia” decision and the release of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” – or settle for broad sitcom-style gags. That tension was also evident in Barris’ previous series for Netflix, “#blackAF,” in which he also starred.
Murphy and Louis-Dreufus are too talented not to produce a few genuinely funny moments, and there’s a loose, nicely improvised feel to some of the scenes. There are also pointed observations about race relations even among those who want to be viewed as progressive, such as Shelley treating her future daughter-in-law like a fashionable accessory to be shown off.
Ultimately, though, the performances feel mostly squandered as “You People” yields less than the sum of its parts, not helped by unconvincing plot conveniences down the stretch. It’s also distracting to see the likes of Elliott Gould, Rhea Perlman, Mike Epps, Deon Cole and others pop up and then be given virtually nothing to do.
In Louis-Dreyfus’ famous stint on “Seinfeld,” the producers famously operated by the very un-sitcom-like principle “No hugging, no learning.”
The makers of “You People” clearly learned a few lessons about the arc of romantic comedies. But embracing those conventions while trying to wed them a more provocative sensibility doesn’t produce a match made in heaven.
“You People” premieres January 27 on Netflix. It’s rated R.