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Nathan Weinbender reviews "You People"

It takes a certain talent to assemble a bunch of hilarious, accomplished performers and make them seem like hopeless amateurs, but the new Netflix comedy You People manages it. The rate of talent wasted per minute is staggering, and scene after scene in this movie is awkward and unfunny.

It also wants to engage in serious, provocative conversations about racial and religious rifts in 21st century America, but it exists entirely within the realm of hacky sitcom land. No surprise, those modes do not mesh.

To understand the film’s identity crisis, look no further than the character played by Jonah Hill, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Kenya Barris. His name is Ezra, and he’s a successful L.A. broker who works at a big office and lives in a beautiful house. His true passion is podcasting, and the film tells us that Ezra’s livestream, which he co-hosts with his BFF Mo (Sam Jay), gets thousands of views a week as they discuss serious issues about race and class. But we’re also told that Ezra is so socially bereft that he can barely hold a conversation with his boss, resulting in one of those scenes where Hill bumbles around and says all the wrong things because it’s supposed to be hilarious. It isn’t.

Anyway, Ezra has a meet-cute with a woman named Amira (Lauren London) when he gets into her car thinking it’s an Uber. They go out for lunch, they fall in love, they decide to get married. These two don’t seem to have much in common—Amira is Black and Muslim, Ezra white and Jewish, and they come from totally different socioeconomic backgrounds—and so you might wonder what exactly draws them to one another. But the movie doesn’t seem to care and simply yada-yadas through their courtship by way of a wordless montage.

And speaking of yada yada-ing: Julia Louis-Dreyfus shows up as Ezra’s mother Shelley, who, along with her daffy husband (David Duchovny), is straining so hard to be inclusive and progressive that it comes back around to being offensive. Her behavior stands in stark contrast to that of Amira’s politically outspoken father Akbar (Eddie Murphy), who is not only wary of these clueless white people but will stop at nothing to scare Ezra away from his daughter.

I think Barris, who created the series Black-ish and co-wrote the very funny Girls Trip, is onto something with this premise, as familiar as it is, and maybe he and Hill thought they had a home run when they landed this cast of ringers. But they’ve dreamt up a bunch of cringeworthy scenarios and then never allow them to develop either comedy or tension. Consider Ezra’s bachelor party, which Akbar crashes in hopes of digging up dirt on his future son-in-law. There are hundreds of ways to make this scene funny or surprising or even challenging, but Barris cuts away from it before anything can happen.

You People is like a Norman Lear series but without the wit. We keep waiting for these characters to behave like recognizable human beings, to stop the shenanigans of this sitcom plot and really grapple with the serious themes at the heart of the screenplay, to have a genuine conversation about their feelings. But it’s difficult to swallow a movie’s attempts at genuine social commentary when you’re also worried its characters might trip over their own shoelaces.

Nathan Weinbender is a film critic and one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101 heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.