Interracial relationships are so common today that a movie like “You People” should be obsolete. Director Kenya Barris, who also co-wrote the script with Jonah Hill, intended to make an edgy, race-based cringe comedy; the result is afraid of its own shadow. This Netflix release commits an even bigger sin by wasting the considerable comedic talents of former “Saturday Night Live” castmates Eddie Murphy and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
“You People” is essentially a remake of 1967′s toothless Stanley Kramer movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” That film featured Sidney Poitier asking Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy for their daughter’s hand in marriage. Kramer’s film was terrified to offend white viewers, to the point that Poitier’s character is so flawless he bears no resemblance to a real person.
To be fair, 1967 made this level of skittishness somewhat understandable. No such requirement exists in 2023. So, it’s disheartening that “You People” is so tame in its take on race that it makes “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” look like Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.”
This film’s Sidney counterpart, wannabe podcaster Ezra (Hill), is far from flawless. He hems and haws in conversation, doesn’t have the guts to stand up to his boss, and drips with love for what he calls “The Culture” a.k.a. Black culture. He runs a podcast with a Black lesbian named Mo (Sam Jay), who counterpoints his opinions on culture and race relations.
Ezra’s parents, Shelley (Louis-Dreyfus) and Arnold (David Duchovny), think that, at 35, he should have settled down by now. As the film opens, they chew him out at synagogue during Yom Kippur. His queer sister, Liza (Molly Gordon), offers him minor support for staying single before teasing him.
Ezra’s extended family is populated by a crew of familiar faces who all agree that he’s too old to remain unattached. Hal Linden is Ezra’s uncle and earns one of the film’s few laughs by using a profane synonym for kitty cat. Another relative is played by Elliott Gould in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.
You’ll wish you could blink fast enough to miss Richard Benjamin’s cameo as Ezra’s perverted orthodontist.
Things look grim for Ezra until he has one of those meet-cutes that only happen in the movies. He accidentally mistakes the car of Black costume designer Amira (Lauren London) for his Uber ride. She thinks he’s stereotyping, but in his defense, she looks exactly like his driver. So begins their whirlwind romance, depicted in a quick musical montage so we don’t notice that these two have zero chemistry.
Amira’s family includes her father, Akbar (Murphy), and mother, Fatima (Nia Long in a thankless role). Akbar is Muslim, a follower of the Nation of Islam. When Ezra meets him, Akbar is far from enthused that his daughter is dating a white guy. The dynamic between Murphy, with his simmering, passive-aggressive anger, and Hill, with his wimpy shtick, should bristle with comic tension, but instead it feels like Akbar is bullying Ezra.
Similarly, the scenes between Shelley and Amira, with Louis-Dreyfus going all-in as a clueless white liberal ally from hell, should have been master classes in cringe comedy. London, the only actor who feels like she’s playing a real character and not a public-service announcement, reacts realistically to scenarios where Shelley fetishizes her Blackness, but it’s all for naught.
A better Spike Lee Joint to compare “You People” with is 1991′s “Jungle Fever,” where Wesley Snipes has a curiosity-based affair with Annabella Sciorra. The interracial romance aspects of the film felt dated when it premiered, but Lee got useful mileage out of examining how the Italian and Black families of the two lovers dealt individually with their own internalized racism and similar bigotry.
“You People” brings its two families together, positioning them as the source of racial trouble while Ezra and Amira freak out over their actions. Such a scenario might have worked had the movie either offered credibly cringe-y situations or created complex characters who forced the viewer to interrogate their own biases. It does neither, opting instead for flimsy slapstick and scenes that end just when things are becoming appropriately sketchy.
Only Mike Epps brings the requisite amount of danger in a hilarious cameo. He reads his brother Akbar for filth and aptly describes Ezra’s slicked-back hair and bearded look as evoking “a white Barry White.”
For a while, “You People” hints that it might be an argument against interracial dating, the perfect starting point for a satire of “teachable moments.” Mo has a speech about whether the races can truly ever get along. She uses an analogy that’s quite subversive. “It’s kind of like when you cheat on a woman,” she tells Ezra. “You try to move forward, but you never can. For Black people in this country, white dudes are the cheater. And we’re the chick who can’t move on. No matter how bad we want to, we can’t forget what y’all did, and what y’all still doing.”
Her big scene almost makes up for the callous way this film uses its queer characters as little else but voices of reason.
But afraid of the potential repercussions of jarring its audience, the screenplay sweeps Mo’s theory under the rug, which is truly a shame. It was the one thought-provoking idea “You People” had.
Directed by Kenya Barris. Written by Barris and Jonah Hill. Starring Jonah Hill, Lauren London, David Duchovny, Molly Gordon, Nia Long, Sam Jay, Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. 117 minutes. On Netflix. R (racial slurs, words you’d expect from Mr. Murphy)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.