Does You People rejuvenate the romcom? Sadly not

Jonah Hill and Lauren London, You People - Parrish Lewis/Netflix
Jonah Hill and Lauren London, You People - Parrish Lewis/Netflix

Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the days when Hollywood still took romantic comedy seriously? The new film from Kenya Barris, the creator of the hit US sitcom Black-ish, attempts a partial – and, sadly, largely unsuccessful – turning back of the clock.

Rather than a full-blooded return to the genre’s 1990s heyday, You People takes a cue from its scruffier late-noughties coda, in which a rotating stable of improv types riffed their way through various shaggy-dog couplings. One of them was Jonah Hill, who stars here as Ezra Cohen, a Los Angeles-based stockbroker and part-time podcaster who has long tired of the ankle-deep dating pool at his local synagogue. Then, however, he meets Amira (Lauren London), an aspiring costume designer whom he initially mistakes for his Uber driver: a very 2020s meet-cute. Ezra climbs into the back of Amira’s car, she objects, there’s some (playfully) racially charged back and forth, and before you know it the two have scheduled a date.

The charge comes from the fact that Ezra is Jewish and Amira is black – and in the United States, where identity is everything, this soon proves sticky stuff. Ezra’s achingly liberal mother Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a little too excited at the thought of her son being in a mixed-race relationship. But Amira’s father Akbar (Eddie Murphy) is the polar opposite, viewing Ezra with the same suspicion as he does the white gentrifiers now flocking to his previously African-American neighbourhood. When the families come together to celebrate the young couple’s engagement, slavery and the Holocaust rear up as conversation topics within five minutes of dinner being served.

In spirit, it’s all very Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But in execution, it’s far closer to Meet the Parents with a heavy dose of identity politics. Most scenes stick to the same formula – awkward situation arises, characters verbally fumble their way through it – but Hill and Barris’s script seems unsure of just how wacky or eccentric it’s allowed to be, while Hill and London’s chemistry never catches – as a screen couple they scream just-good-friends.

Louis-Dreyfus is good value as the neurotically right-on Shelley, forever checking she’s pronouncing ‘Amira’ correctly and blithely weighing in on racially sensitive topics. But Murphy’s Akbar feels like an unresolved hybrid of two very different characters – a De Niro-esque mind-gamer in the Meet the Parents vein and a more specific caricature of a prickly social justice activist who, if pinned down precisely, might have yielded far bigger laughs. Most puzzling of all is David Duchovny’s performance as Ezra’s father Arnold: the actor delivers his lines in a daze, as if he’s always about to nod off. Watch the film and you might find yourself joining him.

15 cert, 118 min. On Netflix from Friday January 27