“Why Him? More like Why Us!” was my pre-loaded lede for a negative Why Him? review. So simple, right? Every critic has a hook locked and loaded based on title alone, but John Hamburg’s latest comedy doesn’t deserve such a blazing zinger (no mercy, right?) Don’t get excited, it’s still worthy of dismissal, which was made obvious during my screening of Office Christmas Party the very next day. I wanted to give Why Him? a pass just because it made me chuckle here and there, and compared to 2016’s humorless class of underachieving comedies, this father vs. boyfriend face-off is a Mel Brooks classic. Then Office Christmas Party came along and reminded me what “passable” means, and it’s not Why Him? – albeit by a thin margin.
The story positions itself as a war between James Franco’s app-inventing zillionaire, Laird Mayhew, and Bryan Cranston’s out-of-touch, flip-phone-using businessman, Ned Fleming. Laird wants to impress his girlfriend’s family over Christmas, so he has Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) invite the clan out west for the holidays (California). Ned, wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) arrive near Stephanie’s campus ready to crash at their hotel, but other plans have been made – they’re all staying at Laird’s super-ritzy mansion, complete with a live-in “estate manager” for lack of a better term (played by Keegan-Michael Key). Stephanie hopes her family will fall in love with the man she adores, but Laird’s constant cussing and missing filter start things off on the wrong foot. Can Laird rebound and win over the elder Flemings? Will Ned convince his daughter to dump her rich man-child of a boyfriend?
The fireworks between Cranston and Franco may be the film’s biggest draw, but Zoey Deutch is far away the second best thing about Why Him?. Even when she’s relegated to being Laird’s wrangler as he parades around with no shirt – hitting on Barb and calling Scotty a double-dicker – Deutch is the most emotive character of the bunch. She’s so lovable when playfully messing with Laird’s yoga poses, but also stern when laying the “neither of you own me” smackdown on her controlling father and overly-lovey partner. Deutch does her part by remaining sane amidst familial chaos, which ends up levelling utter stupidity with minimal success.
So, why is she the second best aspect of Why Him?? Because Keegan-Michael Key plays a racially ambitious house servant/Cato/advisor/everything to Laird, and, again, he’s Keegan-Michael Key. His German accent, ninja skills and “Oy Vey!” proclamations make him a man of mystery (and defined facial hair), who lives to teach/love/mature/grow Laird. The random surprise attacks and evasive parkour sessions are only to make Laird stronger, as they’re back to palling around minutes afterwards. What’s evasive parkour, you ask? Something insane enough for some rich white bro to consider exercise, like a wannabe Ninja Warrior contestant – which, admittedly, provides some laughs. Not as many as Key, though, who’s let loose on an improv leash with plenty of slack. These are the audacious, indescribable roles Key was meant to play, and you won’t be let down.
Quite frankly, Franco is also cast as one of his best personas – an oblivious, free-spirited douche bro. King Cobra and This Is The End are good examples of similar buffoonery, but The Interview is pique word-inventing, blissfully unaware Francbro stupidity that Why Him? simply cannot surpass. Here, his most endearing quality is the ability to work “fuck” into any sentence, a joke that’s played out after five minutes (yet lasts until the credits roll).
He’s white-bread Silicon Valley absurd, never redeemed by his passionate interest in Stephanie’s slammin’ bod (openly talking about sex in front of her parents, stuff like that). His dialogue is never The Interview inventive, nor are his actions particularly wild or outlandish. Frankly, his shirtless charms and simple attempts at winning over Ned are of the diet variety – a Natty Light where The Interview‘s Dave Skylark is a hulking can of Natty Daddy. Disappointing in so many ways.
The biggest problem here lies in the “battle” between Cranston and Franco, which is tempered and weak. Most of the humor between this generational standoff comes from Cranston’s old-school, armchair dad stuffiness not connecting with Franco’s open-book, lovably obscene goofball lifestyle. Franco plays socially inept, Cranston grumpily refuses to see how Franco’s character so deeply cares for Stephanie, weird, stalker-y attempts at impressing parents go horridly butts-up – yet it all feels drab and safe. There’s rarely ambition in any jokes besides random cameos (oh look, Steve Aoki!) and over-bro’ing, while Cranston sneakily navigates a volatile job-on-the-line subplot with zero vision into printing market trends. It’s a heavyweight throwdown that never suggests a meeting of giants, stifled by professional “success” and overcompensation.
Why Him? continues a trend of middling mainstream comedies that have been coming and going throughout 2016 without anyone batting an eye. The cast, while enticing, is given romcom material with the exact awkwardness you’d expect. Take Megan Mullally for example. Ninety percent of her performance is midwestern-suburban niceties (few genuine laughs), while ten percent lets her be stoned and horny while trying to convince a stressed-out Bryan Cranston to bone like they used to after KISS concerts (funniest moment of the film). There are some decent comedic setups, and a HILARIOUS Keegan Michael-Key, but Franco wears out his welcome after he notches his 30th curse word only five minutes in. The film’s got a great cast and fine idea, but not even a chef Richard Blais appearance could spice up this pretty-OK-at-best dating comedy.
Why Him? plays a fairly one-note game that gets tiresome halfway through, which is sadly still better than most comedies put out this year.