When I was visiting schools amidst my search for a new college to transfer to, I landed on a school that upon the visit, seemed diverse. This was a far cry from my first university where I was one of five total Asians on a campus of 10,000+. Everything seemed good on the visit, but I realized that was a miscalculation upon enrolling.
You see, the second college I attended was more diverse than the first — though, to be fair, that isn’t much of a bar to clear — but it was still predominantly white with the school doing its best to be woke. For example, they had a week celebrating Black History Month that featured a doo-rag day. When it was time for Lunar New Year, they served fried rice in the cafeteria. Suffice it to say, for all of the good intentions the university had, their efforts to be inclusive and celebrate different cultures often came off as tone-deaf.
Now imagine that combined with the tensions between Jonah Hill and Ice Cube’s characters in 22 Jump Street with a dash of Meet the Parents sprinkled in and you have Netflix’s new comedy, You People. This new rom-com takes the “meet the parents” story that you’ve seen a thousand times over but is filled with heartfelt performances, smart writing and a profound message.
Ezra Cohen (Hill) is a broker by day, podcaster by night, and a “Jew with nothin’ to do,” as his podcast co-host and best friend Mo (Sam Jay), calls him. This 35-year-old with hair slicked back like Bradley Cooper in War Dogs leads a mundane life that may include a boring day job and a never-ending search for love.
This search is generally coordinated by his mother, Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Ezra does have ambition, particularly with his podcast (that grows to an outright unrealistic degree in this film), but his love life leaves a lot to be desired and it’s almost like he is simply going through the motions of life. His dates nightmare-fuel with plenty of dead silence and awkward laughs to pass the time. Within 10 minutes, we’re thrown into a Shiva Baby-like situation where Ezra is trapped in the worst nightmare of many young adults: Giving the rundown of your life to family and friends. When you see Ezra’s dating life, it’s no wonder he spends time debating Mo on what era of Drake he is (aren’t we all Views-era Drake sometimes?).
Upon leaving his job one day, Ezra hops into a car that fits the exact billing of his Uber and stumbles upon a young woman named Amira (Lauren London). As you’d imagine, it was far from love at first sight given that Amira wasn’t the Uber driver, but alas, as you do, she agrees to give him a ride if he navigates her to where she needs to be. Despite this agreement, Amira promises that this would not be some “Driving Miss Daisy shit,” and she was right.
The two meet for lunch and instantly hit it off. Four months later and Ezra wants to pop the big question. After not getting the approval of Amira’s parents Akbar (Eddie Murphy) and Fatima (Nia Long) Mohammed, the couple decide to go through with the engagement. But this leaves them with one big problem: their parents. Ezra attempts to gain Akbar’s approval whilst his tone-deaf parents — namely Shelley — attempt to grow a relationship with Amira. As they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Neither was the Cohen and Mohammed families becoming a melting pot.
And that dynamic of the soon-to-wed couple and their inlaws is what You People really nails. It doesn’t just provide laughs like Akbar taking Ezra to a basketball court (where he absolutely balls out) or Shelley wrongly calling racism on a situation at her salon, it means something. Countless films have played out the hesitant future father-in-law with his daughter’s fiance relationship, usually filled with hijinx and little tests to see if he’s fit for the family, but for as cheesy as it sounds, the race relations of it all make it more profound.
Credit where credit is due — director Kenya Barris (black-ish) co-wrote the script with Hill to great results. The script manages to incorporate comedic lines with situational humor that’s almost so uncomfortable that you can’t even bare to watch it unfold. Take, for instance, the scene where Akbar plays a particular song from Jay-Z and Kanye West in the car and presses Ezra on why he finds the lyrics “provocative.”
Hill continues to prove his versatility. He’s grown so much throughout the past decade while also maintaining that knack for being so incredibly awkward in front of his partner’s parents. Not to mention, he’s also a prolific director (watch mid90s!). Murphy also rises to the occasion alongside Hill. Sure, he’s your typical protective dad, but he has such a hard shell that’s nearly impossible to penetrate. Smart with his words and smooth with his delivery, Murphy brings it.
And then you have the complexity of Shelley. Like my college, Shelley’s heart is often in the right place, but her comments are so misguided and so are her intentions. Is Amira her token Black daughter-in-law, or is she just her future daughter-in-law? For as much as Shelley wants to be the “chill” mom, she clearly struggles far more at adapting than, say, Amy’s parents in Booksmart.
It was imperative that Louis-Dreyfus successfully plays Shelley with the likability, and occasionally unlikability, necessary for the role. After all, her character is the crux of not only the film but its entire message. That type of complex character could easily be misconstrued in the wrong hands or portrayed by the wrong actor, but Louis-Dreyfus knocks it out of the park as Shelley.
There is an innocence to every tone-deaf comment like how she watched a Chris Rock documentary to learn more about the hair of Black women or when she goes on a tangent that condemns police brutality. It’s a savior complex also seen in Bodies Bodies Bodies but coming from a woman much older than the young ladies in that film. And weirdly enough, she’s believable as Hill’s mother. They don’t really get a whole lot of meaningful screen time together, but the scenes they do work due to the talent of those actors. Look no further than the looks they exchange as Akbar leads a Muslim prayer during their first dinner together.
Perhaps the biggest flaw facing You People is the balance between the main course and the appetizers that make up the film. The central plot of the film doesn’t kick in until almost 30 minutes into the 120-minute runtime, and in that remaining 90 minutes you have to explore the relationship of Ezra and Amira, explore the relationship of the in-laws and end their story (I think you can guess how this story ends but air on the side of caution and not spoil anything). Now, you kind of back yourself into a corner with this predicament because You People is not a rom-com that needs 150 minutes, but that also means you have to briskly hit the highlights of everything you want to hit on throughout the story.
Much of the fat likely comes in the opening 30 minutes, in all honesty. I love the opening Shiva Baby-like sequence, but perhaps a few minutes could have been trimmed. Or perhaps a couple of minutes could have been cut from the bachelor’s party sequence Maybe this is just nitpicking, but what the viewer of this film comes for is the conflict between all of the future family members (namely Ezra and Akbar). It’s not that we’re shorted on that end, but it does leave a little bit to be desired given that the Mohammeds spend very little time with the Cohens outside of their first dinner and the rehearsal dinner.
While exquisite below-the-line work is rarely expected in a rom-com, DP Mark Doering-Powell (Everybody Hates Chris) did some great work given the sandbox he was in. There’s a sequence between Amira and Shelley where he continuously circles the two, almost in a shark-like manner, until the conflict begins to reach its crescendo. Also, shoutout to Molly Gordon, who actually starred in two films I mentioned in this review — Shiva Baby and Booksmart. She’s underutilized, sure, but her glorified bit role in You People is enough to wash the taste of There There out of my mouth (cast her in more projects, Hollywood!).
Maybe You People really hit home as an Asian-American with white parents. I can’t speak to the specific experiences of the characters shown in You People, but I think that the fear of how your parents would act if you brought a partner home with a different background of any kind is pretty universal to almost anyone. Brilliant work by Hill, Murphy and particularly Louis-Dreyfus makes for a film that does go deeper than what the logline may suggest. You may think that this is a run-in-the-mill rom-com about meeting your future in-laws, but You People doesn’t shy away from its subject matter and is willing to make everyone look like an ignorant moron at some point. It’s a film about overcoming our own ignorance and biases — and isn’t that important in 2023? That said, I’m left with one question: Did my mom take up Spanish on Duolingo before or after I dated a girl from El Salvador?
You People is playing in select theaters now and will be released on Netflix on January 27.