I get the joke already. You People is an updated Look Who’s Coming to Dinner with the humor of a Judd Apatow comedy. It’s kinetic in pace but flat with laughter. Writer/Director Kenya Barris and co-writer/star Jonah Hill type the same joke over and over again, bludgeoning home a point I could get in a thirty-minute episode of a sitcom. White people will never understand black people but must co-exist respectfully. Certain boundaries need to be drawn. One like not mentioning Dr. Martin Luther King or Malcolm X in conversation. The humor behind saying, “I know black people,” followed by an obnoxious tone-deaf remark is funny. Until the bit is the only one played throughout the story.
One day when heading out from work, Ezra accidentally jumps into a stranger’s car, thinking it’s an Huber. Amira (Laura London) is understandably freaked out, hitting Ezra and yelling at him to exit her vehicle. When the scuffle settles down, Ezra shows the picture of his driver to Amira, displaying how his black Huber driver looks identical to her. From here, the movie takes a completely fabricated turn. Instead of booting Ezra from her automobile, Amira lets him hop along with her. Isn’t she worried about stranger danger? But that’s not all; the antics get more and more absurd, which is odd considering the film’s opening.
The movie starts like a mumblecore film where Ezra and Mo (Sam Jay) converse about pop culture. The opening credits have a graffiti In Living Color vibe to it. Soon after the Huber antic starts, the movie drives toward goofball comedy lane, which plays like Meet The Parents. Instead of developing Ezra and Amir’s relationship, the film flashes six months forward to Ezra’s proposal. A jarring cut from meeting the girl to six months later. At its core, I understand the choice not to fully engross the audience in Ezra and Amira’s buildup to the big proposal. Audiences get it. Our lovely couple meet, they fall in love; let’s move forward.
The loving couple has the grand obstacle of winning over each other’s parents. In particular, Amira’s father, Akbar (Eddie Murphy). Murphy plays a far more subdued character than his usual bombastic roles. Akbar is an intimidating man with his arms always crossed and condescendingly answering dumb white people’s questions. Even Eddie Murphy’s presence can’t rise above a script that had me cringing more than laughing.
Many of the film’s antics revolve around Ezra’s parents. Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Arnold (David Duchovny) are bumbling white caricatures you’d see in Get Out. Although they’re not racists who are indoctrinating black people, they’re continually clueless in their dialog. Not a moment goes by where Shelley won’t act like she knows black culture leading to some very uncomfortable dialogue exchanges. Arnold is even worse than his wife, going so far as to play popular songs performed by black artists on his piano.
If you’ve seen any rom-com, you can see where the story will go. Boy meets girl; boy has to see girl’s parents, and so on. I will spell out the ending if I complete the boy meets girl outline. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a predictable ending. Since Ben Braddock disrupted Elain Robinson’s wedding or Jack Byrnes accepted Greg Focker into his family, the recipe for the getting married rom-com has remained the same for decades.
Not everything in the film feels flat. There was a bit about a holocaust ring that earns a chuckle, and Ezra has a clear character flaw of being a motormouth, speaking continually out of his rectum. With that flaw comes a clear change in character where Ezra must learn when to shut up. Eddie Murphy’s character is a show stealer who helps anchor some of the film’s best laughs. The transition between scenes is also quite clever, with an early 90s television feel. The screen cuts from still graffiti-drawn frames to multiple individual frames cross-cutting and flashing between scenes like a Tony Scott film. It’s a visually appealing and structurally clever way to cut between scenes.
Where the movie struggles is in its insistence on gaining laughs. Much of the dialogue seems improvised. Like the director is yelling, “mention Dr. King to Eddie on this take.” The bit is humorous but redundant midway through the film. It isn’t easy to decipher the style the picture was going towards. It goes from subversive dialogue about race to slapstick comedy. Director Kenya Barris wants to let white people converse about race, but not obnoxiously or out of turn. The point has been taken, but where can you go from there other than burning a Muslim’s hat while trying to stamp the flame out? There’s a lot You People wants to say that gets lost in its repetitious humor to effectively say anything that unique.