A master class in race relations
You People, a very, very fresh and funny love story starring Jonah Hill and Lauren London, has all the bones of its rom-com antecedents: the opening meetcute, in which Hill’s Ezra mistakes London’s Amira for his Uber driver; a scowling father of the bride (Eddie Murphy) who can’t stand the unworthy groom; several hilariously awkward meet-the-parents scenes; and not one but two kooky wedding planners (Deon Cole and Andrea Savage). And yet there is something in the socially conscious comedy of its DNA — which includes a bracing splash of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — that subverts almost every genre convention it invokes.
I suspect that is due largely to director Kenya Barris, the creative genius behind the smart shows Black-ish and Grown-ish and the co-writer of the raunchy hit comedy Girls Trip. Not to slight Hill, who co-produced the film and co-wrote the sharp, occasionally bloodletting screenplay with Barris, but, raunch aside, the film mostly has one man’s fingerprints all over it.
Hill plays Ezra Cohen, a Jewish stock broker in LA who is steeped in hip-hop culture and dreams of quitting his day job to pursue in earnest the podcast he produces with his best friend Mo (stand-up comic Sam Jay), a Black lesbian whose whip-smart repartee with her on-air partner, peppered with knowing pop riffs, plays under the opening credits. Amira is a fashion designer, and the two of them — not entirely improbably and with surprising chemistry — fall hard for each other. This leads to the film’s true subject: the relationship between Black and Jewish people in contemporary America.
Ladies and gentleman, sit back, relax, and watch the fireworks, including one literally inflammatory scene in which Ezra’s neurotic mother (Julia Louis-dreyfus, never better) accidentally sets fire to the prized kufi — a gift from Louis Farrakhan. It’s worn by Murphy’s character, a Muslim convert, during a prickly dinner-table conversation that jumps from slavery to the Holocaust, not just in the ways those events bind the two groups, but in the ways they separate them.
Amira’s mother and Ezra’s father (Nia Long and David Duchovny) are excellent in supporting roles, if more taciturn than other characters. You People is, more than anything, a showcase for two comic giants: Murphy as Akbar (born Woody) Mohammed, whose slow-burn effort to undermine the lovebirds’ wedding plans — even going so far as to crash Ezra’s bachelor party — is barbed with deadpan quips and a delight in making his future son-in-law squirm, and Louis-dreyfus as Shelley Cohen, whose strenuous virtue signaling as a well-meaning Brentwood liberal backfires in the most cringingly amusing ways.
Even as the film sometimes slips into cliche and broad slapstick, with Shelley at one point inadvertently pulling the hair weave off the head of one of Amira’s friends, Barris and Hill’s screenplay never removes its finger from the pulsing wound of contemporary social rupture — probing and poking into issues around class, race, economics, gentrification, gender, religion, cultural appropriation, privilege, and unconscious bias.
You People sounds preachy, doesn’t it? Trust me, it’s not. What it really is is a master class on wedge issues and our shared humanity, delivered by comedians who know that laughter can be at once a bitter pill and the best medicine.