Hell is paved with good intentions
If Kenya Barris and its various creations remain mostly confidential in our vast French regions, its Black-ish and other spin-offs are small national phenomena in the land of Uncle Sam. Counting former President Barack Obama among its most inveterate aficionados, the first sitcom raised the humoristic-gritty portrait of contemporary America through the prism of an African-American family. Beyond the traditional sketches of daily life, Kenya Barris has thus endeavored to depict many subjects of society such as police violence perpetrated against the black community, or more generally, the disastrous consequences of the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
So there’s no need to look too far for the recurring themes at the work of the producer, screenwriter, and occasionally filmmaker. Largely inspired by his own experience with systemic racism and other quirks more emblematic of the United States than an eight-layer cheeseburger, it is without too many surprises that Kenya Barris decided to reuse these different motifs in order to feed his very first feature film as a director.
This is a public announcement that you have to be nice to your neighbour, here it is, thank you
Co-written with actor Jonah Hill (who also lends his features to the main character), You People tells the story of a young couple caught in the middle by the multiple dissimilarities between their two respective families. On one side, then, there is the brave Ezra Cohen, a frustrated young financial executive who is as Jewish as he is white, and his parents “progressives and semi-woke” (it’s the synopsis that says so), brilliantly interpreted by David Duchovny and humorist Julia Louis-Dreyfus. On the other, Amira Mohammed (the sympathetic Lauren London), black and Muslim, daughter of the intransigent Akbar ( an Eddie Murphy shining with stoicism) and Fatima (a Nia Long relegated to the status of a near-mute matriarch).
Inevitably, with such a skewer of characters knowingly bordering on archetypes, the union between the two future lovebirds can definitely not happen under the best auspices. In fact, all the comic spring of this new Netflix rom-com rests on what opposes the two characters, which, in itself, is nothing particularly original both in terms of plot and stakes.
Especially since this kind of story generally tends to fall into moralizing discourse with the shrewdness of an intervention by Eric Zemmour. Nevertheless, given the current socio-political context in the United States (and not only), or even the recent anti-Semitic scandal of Kanye West, a rough reminder that intolerance is badmay finally come at the right time.
What could possibly go wrong?
1000 differences game
The scenario of Kenya Barris and Jonah Hill therefore does not take long to play cards on the table. Quickly, it is obvious to the viewer that the two characters are destined to indulge in the traditional “meet cute” before succumbing to the charm of each other. It will not take more than twenty minutes for the couple to decide to settle down together and acquire a modest property in the heart of Los Angeles (which is, in itself, the least credible element of the movie, but let’s move on). It is expeditious, but deliberate: after all, the engagement is less the main subject of this story than the family explosion which inevitably follows.
A regrettable fact if we consider that it is past the first half hour that You People turns cleanly into the mediocre, and explodes in passing the cinematographic cringeometer. It will be agreed, the satirical exercise is not necessarily the most obvious. However, it would be a matter of trying a little bit to contribute to this happy medium sadly forgotten by a large majority of current productions so that the desired subject has the opportunity to be truly relevant. Nevertheless, the plethora of enthusiastic-ignorant comments peculiar to the character of Louis-Dreyfus, coupled with the openly xenophobic tendencies of the patriarch Mohammed, immerse the overall narrative less in educational burlesque than outright unease.
Family Christmas promises to be fun
And if that wasn’t enough flirt dangerously with the grotesque, the film gives a layer of it by having the nerve to draw a parallel between the way in which the two families deal with the situation where it clearly does not have to be. Indeed, if the Cohen family advocates such a paroxysmal good-thinking that it regularly becomes ridiculous, it does not remain less welcoming towards their future daughter-in-law, bubbling at the very idea “to embody progress in front of a family of colors(very often even reducing Amira to the vulgar status of an exotic doll).
Faced with this warmth, as invading as it is infantilizing, there is nevertheless the unequivocal rejection of the Mohammed family, clearly refractory to this unwanted union. The very second Ezra decides to invite his future in-laws to lunch (we won’t dwell on the awkwardness of the process in question), Eddie Murphy’s character did nothing but look for to ruin the engagement by shameless hazing.
Bringing his son-in-law accidentally dressed in Republican colors to a Democratic barbershop
The only socio-cultural confrontation to really be worth the detour in this collection of clichés comes back to the sequence of meals where the two families meet in full. For a few minutes, the film even seems to decide to finally take the bull by the horns and assume its subject regardless of the multiple gags written to amuse the gallery. As the two families take turns claiming responsibility for the crimes and harms committed against their respective communities, real issues begin to emerge.
Genocide or racial enslavement?
This unhealthy tendency to sacrifice real political demands on the altar of humor, here again, more annoying than instructive is all the more regrettable that the screenplay nevertheless manages to distill a handful of interesting proposals. It is thus possible to find a very fair address to systemic white privilege, pushing those from homes of color to redouble their efforts if only to obtain similar opportunities to their fellow Caucasians.
More than a comedy featuring an interracial couple with all the ethnic differences that may mean (even if treating this occurrence as a progressive novelty in 2023 is, in itself, somewhat confusing), You People injects a far from uninteresting religious dimension into the equation. Couples from different colors and nationalities having now become commonplace within societies, slipping in a few issues related to religion could thus have material to legitimize the subject of the film while adding some welcome elements of tension.
“Color is in the family, and it stays in the family, capiche?”
Nevertheless, all the speeches that this could have generated with finesse and acuity are sadly eclipsed by a multiplication of indigestible antics which never cease to follow each other. To say that Barris and Hill’s script lacks subtlety thus transcends any definition of understatement. The viewer will also have no time to rely on the different interpreters of the film in order to make the experience a tad more pleasant.
If Jonah Hill is, as usual, excellent in the role of a disillusioned thirty-year-old not really knowing what to do with his ten fingers, and Eddie Murphy is very convincing in the role of the half-psychopathic daddy-hen, the he chemistry between the main couple (which is, let’s remember, the very subject around which the story is built) is so non-existent that Ezra and Akbar could have formed a more believable union. And then, while we’re at it, let’s get straight to it: Jonah Hill’s character and the sneakers he collects seem like better candidates for romance than Amira and he are.
Date in the field
In the end, the debates exchanged between Ezra and his friend Mo (the excellent Sam Jay) on the occasion of the podcast they host together serve the overall message that the film tries to convey more than the multitude of pseudo quarrels family relationships between the Cohens and the Mohammeds. It is moreover the honorable will behind the screenplay which would almost make you want to forgive him for his (multiple) offenses.
It was however without counting on the final as dripping as nauseating on which ends improbably the film. Admittedly, this is a romantic comedy and of course a syrupy finale is expected in the program. However, it would be a question of learning to distinguish “sweet” from “emetic” in order not to deal the coup de grace to a spectator who is already badly abused. Far from being the biting satire claimed by its creator, and even further from being the nice little rom-com promised, You People therefore falls a thousand leagues from its subject and offers little more than yet another insignificant Netflix production.
You People is available on Netflix since January 27, 2023