Sitcom mastermind Kenya Barris knows his way around the witty rat-a-tat, as a writer and an occasional director. At the helm of his first feature, the Black-ish creator choreographs a who’s who of comic talent and lets them shine — key among them Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jonah Hill, who shares screenwriting credit with Barris. In their LA story, the 35-year-old son of affluent white Jews and the daughter of affluent Black Muslims fall in love. Let the comedy of discomfort begin.
You People revels in tipping sacred cows (the Holocaust, slavery, liberals, Black Lives Matter), and yet it fits quite comfortably within a time-tested rom-com formula. The Netflix comedy, receiving a limited theatrical release a week before its Jan. 27 streaming debut, abounds with well-etched characters, a good number of them lovably annoying or just plain ridiculous. It comes on like gangbusters and keeps generating belly laughs well past the halfway point, slowing down then to take a GPS-directed turn into familiar romance territory.
The Bottom Line
The stars align.
Release date: Friday, Jan. 20
Cast: Jonah Hill, Lauren London, Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Duchovny, Nia Long, Sam Jay
Director: Kenya Barris
Screenwriters: Jonah Hill, Kenya Barris
Rated R, 1 hour 57 minutes
The dynamite opening scene is a convo about “the culture” between Hill’s Ezra Cohen, aka EZ, and his podcast partner, Mo (comedian Sam Jay, terrific in her first movie role). Their unorthodox observations snap, crackle and pop, and their best-friend chemistry is undeniable. Despairing that he’ll never meet his soulmate, Ezra listens to Mo’s tough-love advice and endures the matchmaking efforts of his mother, Shelley (Louis-Dreyfus), who’s in high yenta mode after a Yom Kippur service — a swirling cast-of -thousands sequence that, beyond introducing the Cohens of Brentwood, offers cameos by Elliot Gould, Hal Linden and Richard Benjamin.
No-nonsense Amira Mohammed, meanwhile, is a newly single freelance costume designer who doesn’t suffer boring fools gladly; she’s played by Lauren London with warmth, smarts and real-girl magnetism, not to mention an arsenal of well-deployed eye-rolls. On her way to a job interview, Amira gets lost in Century City, where Ezra works as a very unhappy broker for a loudmouth jerk (Matt Walsh) and where, amid the corporate offices, the 21st century version of Cupid’s bow strikes, bringing the two together in a serendipitous bit of rideshare confusion. Barris and editor Jamie Nelson, with a crucial assist from a Childish Gambino track, make quick, sweet, ick-free work of the falling-in-love montage, and the two actors effortlessly jibe.
Both Ezra and Amira are, in a way, trying to escape boxes — in his case, Shelley’s buttinsky maternal vision of what he needs, and in Amira’s, the righteous intrusions of her rigidly principled dad. Akbar Mohammed (Murphy) enters the film in a James Brown number, clad in a message sweatshirt (subject: Fred Hampton). Glancing around a hip Baldwin Hills café, he tells Amira and her brother, Omar (Travis Bennett), “I’m starting to hate the world more and more each day.”
The comedy of manners ratchets up from there. Amira’s meet-the-parents afternoon with Shelley and Arnold (David Duchovny) and their daughter, Liza (Molly Gordon), devolves into ultra-awkward conversational tangles as Arnold name-drops famous Black people and Shelley offers her take on police brutality. It soon becomes clear that the characters played by former SNL castmates Murphy and Louis-Dreyfus will be the main flies in the romantic ointment, especially once Amira and Ezra become engaged. Shelley’s an unstoppable fount of Westside woke excitement over becoming “a family of color,” declaring that “we are the future now!” Akbar, convinced that hip-hop-loving sneakerhead Ezra is a cultural appropriator and not good enough for his daughter, goes on the undermining offensive.
But in their comparatively brief screen time, the other Mohammeds and Cohens offer delicious grace notes. Nia Long is formidable as Amira’s mother, Fatima, and also gloriously over-the-top, at one agitated point offering a history lesson in the form of “the slave receipts in my purse.” For his part, Duchovny’s Arnold launches into an unasked-for rendition of a John Legend song, his way of relating to his son’s girlfriend.
Much of the hilarity revolves around Hill’s deadpan exasperation and dry delivery; Mainly his character is reacting to Shelley’s jabbering, but the way he wields the word “respectfully” at his grandmother (Rhea Perlman) is no less priceless. On the flip side, Ezra becomes the nervous babbler when he faces Amira’s parents across a booth at Roscoe’s (one of many LA landmarks in the film). As Akbar puts Ezra through the paces, often behind shades and barely moving a facial muscle, Murphy takes the wordless reaction shot to a whole new dimension.
Like many a rom-com, there’s a fairy-tale element here — namely, that this young couple buys a house in 2023 Los Angeles. Still, production designer Maxine Shepard brings Amira and Ezra’s home to vibrant life, infusing the place with their creativity and the vitality of their love but not overdoing it. The same goes for Michelle Cole’s terrific costumes, treasured kicks included. As for the larger setting, there’s plenty of love for LA, both Westside and South, in Barris’ vision. He stages key scenes at Nate ‘n Al’s, Magnificent Brothers Barber & Beauty Salon and the Skirball, among other spots, and Capitol Records, home to legendary crooners of many a love song, forms the backdrop of a climactic exchange. With energy and affection, DP Mark Doering-Powell showcases the well-known locations.
When the movie shifts to such standard fare as the bachelor party in Vegas and the bridesmaids’ getaway to Palm Springs, You People doesn’t entirely lose its edge, but it can’t help but feel more predictable, ticking off the inevitable story beats. As the clash of the well-meaning wacko titans, Shelley and Akbar, recedes a bit, that makes room for pure comedy shtick to come to the fore, notably Mike Epps’ turn as Akbar’s not-quite-so-upstanding brother. Barris spreads the comedy love around with a collection of cameos throughout the film, including his own; Nelson Franklin, Rob Huebel and Winnie Holzman make appearances, as do Deon Cole and Andrea Savage, as dueling party planners, and longtime Barris collaborator Anthony Anderson plays a barber.
The director’s writing partnership with Hill, himself a talented helmer (Mid90s and the recent doc Stutz), is a rewarding meeting of the minds, the material a smart fit for the ace cast. Barris has nimbly crafted a movie that’s both earnest and, to borrow a much-used word in one of Ezra’s most uncomfortable exchanges with Akbar, provocative. But none of that would matter without the laughs — precious goods, and You People delivers.
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