Film Review: Why Him?

Bryan Cranston and James Franco valiantly but fruitlessly give their all in this overprotective-dad comedy that is many times more conventional than it pretends to be.
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Rarely has a movie needed Seth Rogen more. It’s not as though the shaggy Canadian is a lock when it comes to the funny. Some audiences are still recovering from Sausage Party, after all. But when it comes to a certain brand of chaos comedy, Rogen and his orbit of collaborators and co-stars can usually summon the right quantity and combination of snark, befuddlement and catastrophe to bring the usually ungainly contraptions across the finish line. Everything about Why Him? suggests a third-generation facsimile of a Rogen vehicle, cross-pollinated with a reactionary parental anger that was well played out around the time of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.

Stuck in the unwelcome role of castrating father is Bryan Cranston. He plays Ned, the owner of a failing printing plant in grey and dreary Michigan. One of the few bright spots in Ned’s life is that his perky and bright daughter, Steph (Zoey Deutch, as squeaky-cute and unblemished as a Chipmunk), is attending Stanford. Unfortunately for Ned, she’s taken up with Laird (James Franco), a tatted-up tech zillionaire with three strikes against him. First, he’s ten years older than Steph. Second, he managed to accidentally flash Ned while he was Skypeing with Steph. Third, he exists at all, which is something of a problem given Ned’s Taken level of attachment to his daughter. When Ned and the clan come out to visit Steph for Christmas, Laird takes it upon himself to make up for all those deficits and win Ned over.

Once Ned, his wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) are ensconced in Laird’s Silicon Valley playground mansion, the Meet the Parents shenanigans begin. Most important in the playbook, well adhered to by John Hamburg and Ian Helfer’s connect-the-dots script, is ritual embarrassment of Ned ranging from personal space invasions to humiliations involving a Japanese robot toilet. While Ned continually wipes egg off his face, the ever-optimistic man-child Laird keeps up his much-too-much charm campaign. This would be a tricky act for most performers to carry off. But Franco’s spotlight grin and manic charm are pretty unstoppable when used at full wattage as they are here. Laird’s guileless nature and trying-too-hard overkill—getting a back tattoo of Steph’s family holiday card is one decent gag well ruined by the trailer—is like the flip side of Franco’s also-manic but utterly venal TV star in The Interview. Stolid and conventional as all movie Midwestern adults are required to be, Ned is suspicious of rather than charmed by Laird’s natural-child shtick.

All of this requires a lot of slogging for the audience to get through. Unlike other Franco comedies, there aren’t a lot of Apatowians around to pick things up when the going gets dire. In the meantime, space in this overlong comedy is filled with cameos and pop-culture references that will be dated within 18 months of release, if not sooner. Keegan-Michael Key does what he can by occasionally popping in as Gustav, Laird’s fussy butler. His duties extend to randomly assaulting Laird and imploring him to use his “evasive parkour.” One of the film’s few kids-today gags (and there are many) that work is Ned’s bafflement that neither Gustav nor Laird gets his Kato and Pink Panther references.

For all its (sometimes literal) bathroom humor, Why Him? is surprisingly tame. There isn’t anything more transgressive here than what’s been well covered by various gross-out moments in the Meet the Parents films. That isn’t to say that director John Hamburg needed to import more Rogen-and-gang anarchy for the comedy to work. But as initially funny as the contrast of Cranston’s over-my-dead-body grimace and Franco’s oblivious smile might be, it’s hardly enough to base an entire feature comedy around.

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