Star-crossed lovers tackle history in ‘You People’
Ezra Cohen and Amira Mohammed don't exactly meet cute. He jumps into the back seat of her red Mini Cooper, mistaking it for his Uber and she starts punching him, thinking he's an intruder. “Help I’m being attacked!” she screams. He apologizes and offers to guide her out of the concrete maze of Century City.
That initial awkward struggle gives the audience a taste of what's ahead in Netflix's “You People,” which gleefully pokes at the nation's racial, religious, gender and generational wounds even as it gingerly tries to navigate a way forward.
Ezra and Amira are going to have to constantly fight for their love. There's the fact that he's white and she's Black. But there's also a religious divide — she's Muslim, he's Jewish. Then, there are the in-laws, both sets suspicious and deeply uncool.
“I don't know if it's supposed to be this hard,” says the bride-to-be, a superb Lauren London. Says the groom-to-be, Jonah Hill, digging into his soulful side. “I don't think love is enough.”
Hill and “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris have written a rom-com with teeth, a film not afraid to air long-simmering cultural grievances. A dinner with the lovers and both sets of parents quickly — much too quickly — turns to the topics of Holocaust and slavery. It's a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for 2023.
“So do you hang out in the 'hood all the time or do you just come up here for our food and women?” Amira's dad, a wonderfully spiky Eddie Murphy, pointedly asks Ezra. The older man first appears wearing a “Fred Hampton Was Murdered” hoodie and is introduced with the James Brown song “The Payback.” (His wife is played by an imperial Nia Long).
That Ezra, raised on hip-hop and embracing Black culture, would find it hard to win over Amira's parents makes the struggle that more tragic. “If you like something, you like it,” he says, rather naively. “I don’t think anybody should be put in a box, ever.”
The Cohen parents are less overtly aggressive but no less obnoxious. Mother Julia Louis-Dreyfus and dad David Duchovny — both absolutely screamingly excellent as superficial progressives — are fountains of microaggressions, mispronouncing Amira's name or instantly wanting to talk to her about Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Mom loves to use air quotes and blurts out that, in her opinion, she’s fed up with the way police act toward Black people. Dad blurts out he loved “Pimp My Ride.” There's also some physical humor that will make everyone cringe.
Barris, who also directs, spaces the film out into a series of set pieces interspliced like a TV show with visual breaks. The soundtrack includes “Chitty Bang” by Leikeli47, “Stay High” by Brittany Howard and Childish Gambino, Ice-T's “6 ‘N the Mornin’” and Andra Day's “Rise Up.”
One of the film's highlights is Sam Jay, who plays Ezra's straight-talking, hysterical best friend. (They have a debate over Drake's various career chapters that will have you laughing out loud). She also delivers one of the film's most devastating lines, comparing Black people to women who have been cheated on: “No matter how bad we want to, we can’t forget what y’all did and what y’all are still doing.”
The stress starts to crack the couple, as if they're internalizing the weirdness from both sides. Ezra comments in private that Amira's dad is intense, which leads her to push back against any notion of the so-called angry Black man. They fight over whether to have a rabbi or an imam oversee their wedding. “Want me to face the bed towards Mecca?” he taunts her.
Can these star-crossed lovers survive? You almost want to leave them in their cute blanket tent in the living room, forever sealed away from all the anger, misunderstanding and fear.
“You People,” a Netflix release that starts streaming Friday, is rated R for “language throughout, some sexual material and drug content.” Running time: 118 minutes. Three stars out of four.