Some comedy formulas keep getting pulled out and re-dressed because they never truly stop serving the point of making a quick buck for studios. Among those comedy formulas is the father-vs.-fiance mainstay, a backbone of movies like Son-in-Law, Meet the Parents, all the way back to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, or especially its inferior 2005 remake, Guess Who. Why Him? appears to be made precisely with that intent. It’s a quick and simple Holiday comedy that serves as one of our only real comedy options in this especially dreary January of 2017, and while it technically works, it’s recycling a premise that has kept coming back in numerous comedies over the years.
As with many comedies that recycle this premise, the main draw of Why Him? is its lead actors, which, in this case, are Bryan Cranston as the doubting father, and James Franco as the outwardly shaky fiance, or in this case, prospective fiance. This movie also packs an R-rating to boot, meaning that Why Him? throws out an onslaught of curse words and gross-out gags to help try and distract from its very pedestrian premise. Even if several jokes fall spectacularly flat, and Why Him? doesn’t do anything that audiences haven’t seen before in other, often better comedies however, the movie is at least passable, if for no other reason than its likable and talented lead cast.
Cranston plays Ned Fleming, a very old-fashioned guy, complete with heading up a printing company in an age of digital media, who has a sweet young college-age daughter, Stephanie, played by Zoey Deutch. Zoey has barely started her twenties, but already, she’s started dating a significantly older, noticeably eccentric, highly irreverent mobile gaming juggernaut named Laird Mayhew, played by James Franco. Inevitably, Ned and Laird clash, after Laird seeks Ned’s blessing to marry Stephanie, with Ned taking an immediate dislike to Laird even before that, and believing him to be the absolute wrong person for both his daughter and his family as a whole.
I will give Why Him? this though; It at least somewhat mixes up its well-worn story formula by completely eliminating almost any sense of hostility or discontent with Laird. Laird is loud, crass and has absolutely no filter, but in his own way, he is legitimately sweet and hard-working, and rather than resent Ned, he seems to genuinely idolize him. Ned’s old-world values often leave him unable to see the high points of Laird by contrast, despite Ned just trying to look out for his daughter at the same time. This is a reasonably sound conflict, and Cranston and Franco both sell it all the more with their fun, highly enjoyable lead performances, with both lead characters being likable and relatable in their own ways.
The lead cast also has two more standouts in the mix, between Ned’s wife, Barb, played by Megan Mullally, and Laird’s bodyguard/best friend/assistant, Gustav, played by Keegan-Michael Key. Normally, the other spouse tends to get pushed into the background in these kinds of comedies, but Mullally actually does manage to steal the majority of scenes that she’s in. Her character is both a reasonable grounding rod for Ned and an unlikely ally to Laird, as well as a smart, witty woman with plenty of great jokes to run with. Key, meanwhile, is often treated as admittedly funny gag fodder, but Gustav does actually find some creative ways to become a legitimate part of the story in several scenes, making him more than an audience-pandering clown that’s meant to exacerbate Laird’s weirdness.
The only time that the likable lead cast is hurt in Why Him? is when the movie’s script starts forcing them into these overly outrageous, excessively unrealistic scenarios and jokes, which takes you out of what’s otherwise a reasonably heartfelt comedy for adult families. Much like Laird, Why Him? sometimes seems to try too hard to amuse audiences, when it might have benefited from reigning in a few jokes and scenes, and simply letting the actors do their thing. It’s not enough to kill the entire movie, but it does sometimes distract from a clear heart that does manage to sneak into the final product, despite a very worn, studio-friendly inspiration.
Why Him? hits a lot of the same notes as most of the father-vs.-fiance comedies that have come before it, for better or for worse. The movie does try to go for a distinctly Millennial-flavoured spin by making Laird a rich mobile gaming tycoon with a bunch of bizarre technology and appliances in his oversized Silicon Valley mansion, but beyond the details of its jokes and characters, this storyline offers few surprises. Even when Laird is especially sweet-natured and innocent as far as these contested comedy boyfriends go, the conflicts in this movie are exactly the conflicts that you imagine will come up, with no real curveballs.
Again, the storyline in the movie is pedestrian, but it does get the job done. The movie does lean on a surprising amount of shock value whenever it thinks things are becoming too predictable though, which leads to some jokes and scenes that are more purely uncomfortable than truly funny. I suppose that if you have a taste for painfully awkward humour, then Why Him? is going to be very much up your alley. Even then though, you’re not going to feel like you haven’t seen most of it already.
John Hamburg both co-writes and directs Why Him?, and that’s pretty fitting, since Hamburg wrote the script of Meet the Parents, a movie with the exact same premise, along with penning its sequel, Meet the Fockers. Essentially, Hamburg has made this movie already, though this time, he’s also directly behind the camera, rather than just contributing the script. As for Hamburg’s direction, it’s pretty serviceable, in the sense that he wisely lets the actors carry the piece, with minimal intervention much of the time.
As I’ve said more than once, it’s during some of the more goofy and shocking scenes that Hamburg’s direction is shakier. Many of the punch lines to these failed jokes are far too obvious, and that makes Why Him? suffer from patches of feeling tired, even when most of it is decently funny. It’s not often that the direction feels best when the director seems to pull back and be more passive, but that definitely appears to be the case in Why Him?. The movie is best when it’s just letting its personalities push everything forward, and not concerning itself so much with justifying its R-rating.
It doesn’t even feel like the R-rating is truly necessary in fact, since the movie wouldn’t have lost much by ditching the f-bombs and the shock jokes. It could have gotten away with a PG-13 rating, and it feels like the only reason why it has an R-rating is because those are the live-action comedies that sell most these days. Maybe that’s fair enough, but Why Him? really didn’t need to go out of its way to try and prove that it’s for adults, especially when those efforts make it come off as less mature, not more.
Why Him? is silly, disposable and predictable, but it’s also pretty harmless, and does manage to get by on the charisma of its lead cast. As far as Holiday/January comedy options go, it’s serviceable. There isn’t much to read into, especially as the movie’s story and characters undergo every plot turn you imagine they will. The only thing maintaining interest is the humour and the performances, but fortunately, those both get the job done.
So, with all that said then, is Why Him? actually good? Well, it’s not great, but I wouldn’t say it’s bad either. It’s a decent comedy with jokes that don’t always land, but at least merit a pretty decent smile, if you’re not taking the movie too seriously. It’s about the best that you could often expect for a late December/January R-rated comedy. Besides, even if you don’t take to it, it’s not like you’ll remember it for very long afterward.
- Cranston and Franco are likable foils
- Mullally and Key are surprising supporting standouts
- Some of the set pieces are especially funny
- Some of the set pieces are really not funny
- Very predictable story progression and turnout
- Shock humour is often unnecessary