Bryan Cranston and James Franco are two versatile Hollywood talents, having both shown considerable range in drama and comedy. So why, then, is “Why Him?” so trifling? Lacking real zest or fun, it’s a middling effort, if one with ample heart and good intentions, that happens to star two actors who can rise to the occasion when necessary. Working together, it’s a shame that they serve both as this frustratingly mediocre comedy’s most reliable pleasure and most consistent disappointment.
Straight-laced paper company CEO Ned Fleming (Cranston) is set in his ways. He’s an old-fashioned businessman, based in the heart of Michigan, and he’s the kind of pragmatic, technology-dismissing stalwart that doesn’t want to see his well-groomed kids veer too far from his well-cemented, hard-earned traditionalism. That’s why he’s shocked to discover that his eldest child, Stanford student Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), has recently gotten cozy with a sleazy, laid-back slacker of a dude named Laird Mayhew (Franco), the type of dim-witted doofus who knows how to make a complete and utter ass of himself, in more ways than one. While Laird embodies quite nearly everything he dismays about the youth of today, for the good of his daughter, Ned decides to take his wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and his youngest son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) to California to spend the holidays with this elusive new boyfriend.
But the surprises, as they do, come by the plentiful during their holiday stay. For one, Laird is actually a 32-year-old app-developing tech millionaire, and he’s been dating Stephanie for nearly a year now. Not only that, but Laird wants to take their relationship to the next step, wishing to earn Stephanie’s hand-in-marriage, as well as Ned’s blessing in the process. Ned, of course, refuses, as he knows full well that Laird is anything but husband material. But Laird is a persistent guy, hoping that he can prove before Ned flies back to Michigan that he is, in fact, the right man for his lovely daughter. But Laird’s need to gain Ned’s acceptance, evidently, goes a little bit deeper than that. He not only wants to make Stephanie his wife, he wants to find a proper father figure, something that’s been absent for most of his extravagant, if empty, life.
Co-writer/director John Hamburg knows what he’s doing, and what kind of film he’s making. His directorial follow-up to 2009’s endearing, bromantic “I Love You, Man,” the “Meet the Parents” scribe could have easily have followed the path of many contemporary laffers and turned this type of familiar father-boyfriend tussle-and-bonding farce into something a little more cutting, ruthless and mean-spirited. But instead, Hamburg leans toward sweet and cuddly, with the film playing like a warm glass of cocoa laced with sugary profanity and proverbial sex talk throughout. There’s agreeably no malice or ill-will in these proceedings, and it’s what also makes the more cringe-worthy elements of the comedy go down a little bit more smoothly. While this is exactly the type of movie that’s in Hamburg’s wheelhouse, he’s also confined by the boundaries of his familiar-to-a-fault narrative, which is spiced by Laird’s silly, bizarre behavior, but never made funny or appealing enough to sustain its nearly two-hour running time.
Indeed, Franco knows how to play this specific type of handsome idiot like few others. He is, unquestionably, very well-cast, even if it’s the type of role he can almost do in his sleep at this point. Beyond Laird’s ludicrous lifestyle and accessories, which includes everything from two nine-foot-tall, machine gun-aided metal monkey guards at his front steps, to a customized home operating service, voiced by Kaley Cuoco, that’s a cross between a personalized/all-knowing Siri and a foul-mouthed Jarvis, to a foreign, futuristic, environmentally-friendly toilet that provides more-than-one remote-operated service for men and women, to a dead moose encapsulated in his own jarred urine located in the middle of his spacious living room, there’s little here that feels truly inspired or freshly funny. The strength of “Why Him?” often comes from the begrudging camaraderie between Cranston’s tight-lipped naysayer and Franco’s open-hearted dork, which is the film’s beating heart. Unfortunately, Hamburg only rarely lets them develop any meaningful connection before bombarding them with wild subplots involving drugs, sex, stolen Christmas trees, computer hacks, Elon Musk and fist fights. It’s not necessarily uncommon to see studio comedies devolve into frantic mishaps, but Hamburg has gone down this road in the past with more satisfying results.
There are some easy chuckles earned throughout, particularly involving Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key), Laird’s trusted, all-encompassing, Kato-esque right-hand man, and his running habit for provoking surprise karate attacks on his boss, in order to build up his self-defense preparedness. Cranston and Franco, have a solid back-and-forth, perhaps solidified thanks to recent collaborations on the Franco directed projects “In Dubious Battle” and “The Masterpiece,” about the making of Tommy Wiseau‘s cult favorite “The Room.” They have a very good odd couple relationship and easy-to-please chemistry, but it doesn’t necessarily charm or amuse nearly as much as it should. Perhaps the script, also written by Ian Helfer, with a story credit by Jonah Hill, just couldn’t cut it? Maybe Hamburg is too comfortable with this type of comedy to make something more distinct? Maybe Cranston and Franco can only do so much with the material they’re given? Whatever the case, “Why Him?” raises a lot of questions, and not enough reasons to care. [C+]