Producers: Kevin Misher, Jonah Hill and Kenya Barris Director: Kenya Barris Screenplay: Jonah Hill and Kenya Barris Cast: Jonah Hill, Lauren London, Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Duchovny, Nia Long, Sam Jay, Elliott Gould, Travis Bennett, Molly Gordon, Rhea Perlman, Deon Cole, Andrea Savage, Mike Epps, Emily Arlook, Alani La La Anthony, Bryan Greenberg, Richard Benjamin, Hal Linden, Matt Walsh, Doug Hall, Yung Miami, Andrew Schulz, Jordan Firstman and DJ Drama Distributor: Netflix
It’s been slightly over a century since “Abie’s Irish Rose” opened on Broadway and became the longest-running play in New York history, clocking in at 2,327 performances in a run of over five years. It was already considered an antique by the time a movie of it was released in 1946, but apparently assuming that a creaky premise is never too old to be resuscitated, Jonah Hill and Kenya Barris have revived the story about a young couple from different backgrounds whose parents upend their marriage plans, trying to transform it into a cool take on contemporary social rifts. But “You People” can’t camouflage its musty roots simply by applying an avalanche of crude stereotypes and standup-style jokes to the mix.
The idea that a Jewish boy’s decision to marry an Irish Catholic girl could cause much domestic consternation (the plot of “Rose”) would never fly nowadays, of course, so major surgery has been done. Shlumpy Ezra Cohen (Hill), a discontented stockbroker whose dream is to take his podcast with his fast-talking buddy Mo (Sam Jay) national, falls for Amira Mohammed (Lauren London), a black costume designer. His parents Arnold and Shelley (David Duchovny and Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who pride themselves on their boobishly progressive outlook, are enthusiastic, but hers, Akbar and Fatima (Eddie Murphy and Nia Long), are most decidedly not. Their assessment that Ezra is a hopeless loser, along with their Muslim beliefs—they’re members of the Nation of Islam and Akbar a faithful disciple of Louis Farrakhan—leads Akbar to take any measures necessary to break up the engagement.
For Hill, this scenario gives him the opportunity to indulge in Jewish stereotypes that might have made even Anne Nichols, the author of “Rose,” blush. In the opening scene, set at a synagogue, Elliot Gould and Hal Linden appear as wizened elders; their characters are a mite odd but still reasonably coherent. As a doctor whose suggestions are more than a little inappropriate, however, Richard Benjamin is a caricature of age gone berserk. There’s also Rhea Perlman, whose attitudes as Ezra’s granny are clichés. And Molly Gordon as Ezra’s acerbic—and queer—sister, constantly embarrassed by her parents’ obtuseness in dealing with the Mohammeds.
That description applies to some extent to Duchovny’s Arnold, but his incongruously well-meaning remarks are made in such a dopily understated way that while wrongheaded, they pass almost unnoticed. By contrast Louis-Dreyfus’ Shelley is such a caricature of the overbearing Jewish mother that, combined with her habit of saying unintentionally offensive things in her zeal to sound enlightened, virtually her every appearance is calculated to make viewers cringe as well as laugh. The actress does the shtick—one episode in which involves Akbar’s most prized kufi—as well as anyone could, but it’s still shtick of the most hackneyed sort.
Amira’s friends and family fare better, but not by much. Barris has dipped into the comic possibilities of interracial marriage before, co-writing last year’s feeble reimagining of another over-the-hill premise in the Disney remake of “Cheaper by the Dozen.” Here he digs a little deeper with the Muslim element, but the result is still bland. Amira’s brother Omar (Travis Bennett) is a typical long-suffering son, and though her uncle EJ (Mike Epps) is portrayed as the cynical n’er-do-well, he’s more a familiar comic prop than anything else. And while Amira’s girlfriends are depicted as a rather screechy bunch, they’re given little to do. Neither, surprisingly, is Long, who fades into the background even more than Duchovny on the other side of the aisle. It’s Murphy who does the heavy lifting, putting a malicious gleam in Akbar’s eye as he schemes to humiliate Ezra by insisting he join a basketball game in the hood, or taking him to a black barbershop (where Anthony Andrews, no less, presides—only one of many cameos), or, in his nastiest move, crashing Ezra’s Las Vegas bachelor party to get the goods on his past misbehavior.
Yet all of the plotting and gruesomely ill-considered behavior is conveniently swept aside for a predictably sweet finale. Oh, there’s a temporary roadblock to the wedding, but only to serve to make the inevitable nuptials even more satisfying. That getting there requires overnight changes in some of the characters makes no difference; all that matters is getting there.
There are a few moments in “You People” that suggest an edgier path the moviemakers might have taken. A dinner conversation that turns heated when it’s debated whether the Holocaust should be compared to slavery is a case in point, but these are few and far between; facile humor and slapstick are more frequent. Hill and London are mostly agreeable, though his trait of trying to accommodate himself to everyone gets tiresome—he ends up seeming little more than a human doormat, which makes his podcast dream (and eventual success) even more implausible, though Jay gets in a few good riffs—and her occasional harshness can grate. Everyone else fills the script’s demands, which in this case is not always a virtue. Technically the picture’s a professional job: Maxine Shepard’s production design, Mark Doering-Powell’s cinematography and Michelle Cole’s costumes all give it the look of a solid streaming movie—which is, after all, what it is. But the repeated use of long photo-and-graphic montages as transitional devices is excessive, and their frequency, especially as they’re invariably accompanied by Bekon’s hyper score, makes the movie, edited by Jamie Nelson, feel flabby.
“You People” isn’t a terrible watch. It has some funny moments and even a few that strain for something more. But coming from the guy who made a surprisingly auspicious writing-directing debut with “Mid90” (and given some solid performances), and the creator of the pleasant sitcom “Black-ish,” it’s a disappointment—an attempt to revivify a hoary old premise that would have been better left to molder.