UK Release Date: 26th December 2016
Runtime: 111 minutes
Director: John Hamburg
Writer: John Hamburg, Ian Helfer
Starring: Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Griffin Gluck, Keegan-Michael Key, Kaley Cuoco
Synopsis: A printing company boss butts heads with his beloved daughter’s tech millionaire boyfriend when she invites her family over to spend Christmas in their lavish house.
It’s fair to say that the Christmas period of 2016 is not going to be remembered for great festive films. Whether it was Office Christmas Party or the dismally lazy sequel Bad Santa 2, the month of December was a graveyard for comedy. Sneaking in right at the end of the year, Why Him? looked like it stood a chance at changing things with its great central cast and fun premise. Unfortunately, it’s a completely ideas-free movie with tired jokes and an empty space where its heart should be.
Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston) celebrates his birthday as his printing business begins to experience a downturn as a result of the internet. He video calls his daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), who is studying at Stanford, and discovers she has been secretly seeing someone. With his wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and youngest son Scotty (Griffin Gluck), he travels to California to meet Stephanie and her boyfriend Laird (James Franco), who turns out to be an obnoxious tech millionaire who, in Ned’s mind, is a completely inappropriate partner for his high-achieving daughter.
There is the grain of an interesting comedy premise at the centre of Why Him?, with the stage set for a classic comedy of misunderstanding. Director John Hamburg is a credited writer on all three films in the Fockers franchise, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that he knows exactly how to construct an escalating series of misdemeanours in order to construct a farcical final conflict. That structural discipline is entirely absent from Why Him?, which has no sense of escalation and doesn’t have the courage to make any of its characters particularly tough to like. There’s never a sense that Cranston and Franco dislike each other, which makes it difficult to buy the story’s nods towards a rivalry.
It’s unfortunate that the story is so deficient given the strong work that many of the cast members are doing. Cranston fits snugly into the role of steadfastly traditional parent and Franco barely has to act as a perpetually topless, sweary millionaire. The MVP, though, is Megan Mullally, who gets nearly all of the script’s best laughs and has great chemistry with the uptight Cranston. There’s a real misstep in the casting of Keegan-Michael Key as a flamboyant personal assistant who essentially plays as an unfunny, less charming version of Hank Azaria’s character in The Birdcage.
There simply aren’t enough funny moments in Why Him? to make it work. Franco’s pubic hair is the punchline of the film’s first scene and his arse is the punchline of the second, so it’s fair to say that comic invention is in rather short supply. Gags progress in fairly obvious ways, with none of the bizarre innovations that made Meet the Parents so successful as a similarly plotted farce. Everything from toilet functions to frank sexual discussion is present and correct in the script, but Hamburg seldom lands a laugh from any of it.
The overriding issue with the film is that it never feels like there’s anything at stake. Franco’s character is obnoxious, but he’s clearly a good person and it doesn’t feel as if Cranston’s character ever doubts that either. This creates an inherent lack of drama, which means that the finale arrives out of nowhere, complete with an entirely unnecessary cameo from some rock royalty.
Pop or Poop?
With a bit of a script polish, Why Him? could have been a compelling comedy. Unfortunately, the strong performers have really subpar material to work with and struggle to create laughs as a result. It’s impossible to ever get invested in the fortunes of the characters and so, when it all turns out alright in the end, it’s hard to care.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.