One knows going into Why Him? that the entire reason the movie received the green light was based upon the notion of envisioning the dynamic between Bryan Cranston and James Franco. Why else would Ben Stiller invest some of his own money as a producer knowing full well a Christmas movie of this nature would give him a full return on his investment? With a screenplay by John Hamburg and Ian Helfer based on a story by Jonah Hill, it’s inevitable that even an actor of Cranston’s caliber can’t work with the material from the minds of these men. Though Hamburg is already seasoned in the genre of “parent meeting” films (he was one of the writers responsible for 2000’s beloved Meet the Parents), his reworking of a tale that was far better off when executed between De Niro and Stiller is not only unnecessary but completely offensive to the brain’s capabilities.
With the first scene being a FaceTime exchange between quintessential daddy’s girl Stephanie Fleming (Zoey Deutch, better known as Lea Thompson and Howard Deutch’s daughter) and her gross-out, but rich (therefore tolerable) boyfriend, Laird Mayhew (James Franco), it’s clear that Why Him? isn’t going to try hard in any way to be engaging. If one wanted to see a FaceTime conversation, he might as well just have one of his own. Establishing that Stephanie has been studying diligently for her midterms at Stanford for the past three days and that, as a result, Laird is getting “black balls,” we learn that he’ll be popping into her dorm later that night. And, wouldn’t you know it, her FaceTime call with her parents, Ned (Cranston) and Barb (Megan Mullally), and brother, Scotty (Griffin Gluck), at his birthday party coincides perfectly with Laird showing up and taking his pants off in her dorm room. As Ned tries to get his future son-in-law’s bare backside off the screen, it only causes the computer to freeze mid-screenshot. Thus, Ned and Barb learn about Laird.
Subsequently, they and Scotty are invited out to California from Michigan to spend Christmas with Stephanie and Laird. Though Ned is hesitant to leave his fledgling printing company at a time when it’s on the precipice of bankruptcy, he feels the gravity of losing his daughter to a seeming psychopath would be far worse. And so, upon arriving on Californian soil, the surprises begin–starting with Stephanie informing her family that they’ll all be staying with Laird. Vaguely explaining that he has his own place, the Flemings’ jaws soon drop when Stephanie drives them onto his secreted estate. At last explaining that Laird long ago made his fortune off of creating a video game called Guerilla Gang, Stephanie appears to hope that his bank account might excuse away the flamboyance and over-the-top nature of Laird, the 32-year-old man who has decorated his home with a dead moose preserved in a urine-filled case that we invariably know is going to burst open onto someone from the moment we see it.
But to Ned, it explains nothing, least of all why Stephanie has decided to conceal her year-long relationship with this maniac who subsists on what Ned refers to an industry based on “smoke and mirrors.” Based on his erratic, often disturbing behavior, however, it’s obvious why Stephanie would feel reluctant about sharing the news of her relationship with her extremely strait-laced, old-fashioned father. As one of the last breeds from a generation that believed in hard work and painstaking processes to achieve success, a person like Laird simply doesn’t compute for Ned–though he comes across as god to Scotty, often repressed and written off by his father in spite of being next in line to take over the family business.
As Ned tries to tell himself that Laird is a passing fancy, his authority is undermined at every turn–even by Laird’s smarthouse-inspired Siri, Justine, voiced, more than somewhat randomly, by Kaley Cuoco. His pride is most severely wounded when Laird’s “estate manager,” Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key), has to explain to him how to use the toilet’s “paperless” mechanism, humiliated when Gustav goes so far as to enter the bathroom to “reboot the system” while Ned remains stranded with his pants down on the seat. It is “easy” humor such as this that persists as a constant throughout Why Him?, which follows the exact blueprint one would expect from a comedy spawned from the Apatow school of drollery.
Regardless of Cranston’s character providing the only source of profound meaning in any way if you really delve deep enough (he’s an anachronism in a world of obscenity-spouting narcissists), Why Him? is essentially almost two full hours of literal toilet humor. It’s hard to know if we only have America’s lowest common denominator demographic to blame for continuing to make this brand of movie successful, or if, like Laird, James Franco is simply too rich to be stopped.