Why Him? (United States, 2016)December 24, 2016
I’m not going to lie. I laughed - just not as frequently or as hard as I would have liked to. Why Him? contains its share of effective humor, both of the clever and raunchy kinds, but it also suffers from two malaises that infect many modern comedies. A lot of the jokes are amped up too much, either with gross-out material that pushes things from laugh-worthy to cringe-inducing or by being repeated too often. There’s also an attempt to inject pathos and feel-good sentiments into the last act but, in the absence of true character development, those qualities come across as schmaltzy and saccharine. The latter problem is Why Him?’s most glaring flaw. The happy ending isn’t earned and its occurrence is a huge turn-off. For a while, the movie looks like it’s going to go dark but then chickens out and leaves the viewer with a palpable sense of dissatisfaction.
Why Him? borrows a share of its premise from the Robert DeNiro 2000 comedy, Meet the Parents, and turns James Franco’s offbeat public personality into an asset. For the most part, the movie’s throwaway gags are its best. One wealthy character hires a live choir to provide background Christmas carols in his house. Kaley Cuoco plays a disembodied, Siri-esque version of herself. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley perform a Christmas song in full KISS regalia. Franco and Keegan-Michael Key do the full Clouseau/Cato sneak attack routine. And so on… All of this stuff is more amusing than a tea-bagging dead moose or some of Franco’s antics.
Bryan Cranston has done some exceptional post-Breaking Bad movie work (Trumbo and The Infiltrator) but this brand of comedy isn’t his forte. As Ned Fleming, he’s stiff and uncomfortable. Although those are requisite characteristics for playing the straight man, there are times when his style is a little menacing. De Niro found a way to turn this to his advantage in Meet the Parents but Cranston isn’t as successful. Playing his foil, the multi-millionaire Laird Mayhew, Franco embraces the off-the-wall weirdness the tabloids have attributed to him and delivers a performance that’s borderline-creepy. Zoey Deutch, an up-and-coming actress with a full slate of films set to come out soon, is likeable as Stephanie, whose role is that of peacemaker between her old-school father and new-age beau.
Ned’s first inkling that his daughter has been hiding something from him occurs on the occasion of his 55th birthday party, when a skype call with Stephanie reveals a strange man disrobing in the background. Soon thereafter, a request comes: Stephanie would like Ned, his wife, Barb (Megan Mullally), and his son, Scotty (Griffin Gluck), to join her for Christmas at Laird’s house in Southern California. The trip begins awkwardly, as Laird’s unfiltered speech and ill-advised attempts to ingratiate himself with his girlfriend’s family misfire, but Ned’s misgivings turn into full-fledged horror when Laird reveals to him that he plans to make a Christmas proposal to Stephanie…and wants Ned’s blessing.
Much of the narrative, to the extent that there is one, doesn’t deviate much from the Meet the Parents story as the “inappropriate” groom-to-be attempts to win over his girlfriend’s parents. The film’s level of raunchiness is fairly high, but that seems to be what’s expected from R-rated comedies today. Comedy is subjective but I didn’t find much of Why Him?’s “envelope-pushing” material to be funny. At times, the profanity and gratuitous sexual references are obligatory - a way to create a redband trailer that will tell viewers: “Hey, this isn’t for kids!”
At best, the ending can be described as inconsequential but its attempts to wring a moral out of the story (about female independence and empowerment) strikes a sour note, although not nearly as sour as its belief that we’re suddenly going to care about these plastic, two-dimensional props that pass for characters. To the extent that Why Him? is all about delivering laughs, one has to credit director John Hamburg for delivering the goods. Unfortunately, take away about a dozen solid jokes and there’s nothing left, making this yet another in a long line of recent “comedies” that prove how clueless motion picture studios are when it comes to generating laughter from a broad audience.
Why Him? (United States, 2016)
Cast: Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Griffin Gluck, Keegan-Michael Key
Screenplay: John Hamburg & Ian Helfer, based on a story by Jonah Hill & John Hamburg & Ian Helfer
Cinematography: Kris Kachikis
Music: Theodore Shapiro
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox