Why Him?: As fun as a tank full of moose piss

A tragically unfunny gross-out fest that wastes the comedic talents of stars Bryan Cranston and James Franco.

click to enlarge Bryan Cranston as Ned, Megan Mullally as Barb, and James Franco as Laird. - Scott Garfield © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Scott Garfield © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Bryan Cranston as Ned, Megan Mullally as Barb, and James Franco as Laird.

Why Him?, the new holiday-themed comedy co-starring the odd couple of James Franco and Bryan Cranston, is directed by John Hamburg, who previously co-wrote the screenplays for Meet the Parents and both of its disappointing sequels. The film also happens to come from Red Hour Productions, Ben Stiller's production company. It's thus fair to say it's no accident that it shares DNA with that beloved modern classic.

Unfortunately, successive generations of copying appear to have produced some monstrous mutations along the way.

The movie introduces us to Ned Fleming (Cranston), a mild-mannered married father of two and proprietor of a struggling printing company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His eldest, the beautiful and brainy Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), is a senior at Stanford University who, rather than come home for Christmas, invites the whole family out to Palo Alto to meet her new boyfriend, Laird (Franco).

Pretty soon, we discover that Laird is actually a 32-year-old foul-mouthed, tattooed gaming app mogul with a live-in life coach (Keegan-Michael Key) and a poor sense of personal boundaries. His early attempts to ingratiate himself with the family — especially with Ned — go poorly. But in a flip of Meet the Parents' power dynamics, it's the boyfriend who puts the family up in his modernist palace of a home, and thus gets to set most of the ground rules.

That premise might have been a decent, if not terribly original, source of comedy, had the writers of Why Him? bothered to create characters who, just like real-life people, had comprehensible motivations that might lead them into humorous conflict.

We do not get that here. There's precious little in the film that would be identifiable as a joke or a punchline. The situational humor, such as it is, comes from watching incoherent cartoon characters struggle in uncomfortable circumstances as a direct result of their own implausibly strange choices. There are certainly attempts at physical humor, but they consist largely of a cynical game of gross-out one-upsmanship — even to call them "pratfalls" would be doing a deep disservice to the noble tradition of the pratfall. Instead, what we mostly get are notions that are bullyingly asserted to be funny, without any evidence.

Here are some of the things the makers of this film find so inherently hilarious that simply referencing them is considered sufficient to stand in place of actually constructing a joke: molecular gastronomy; bukkake; animal cruelty; Siri; fist bumps; the Buffett Rule; white people calling each other "dog"; Kaley Cuoco; Japanese toilets; paintings of animals having sex; bowling; vaguely German accents; moose urine; moose testicles; and, finally, the phrase "no clownin'."

There would be no point in recounting the "plot," because you already know the plot if you're a person and have watched a movie, any movie. The film is all premise, and does absolutely nothing original or remotely interesting with that premise.

It doesn't even make a real attempt to answer the question raised in its title: If Stephanie really is bright and ambitious and worldly (which is asserted, but not actually demonstrated) why would she go for this guy, who comes across as dim and self-centered and terribly needy? We aren't shown all that much of their relationship, but in what we do see, she berates him like a child more often than would usually be considered cute. The closest the script comes to having Stephanie herself explain the attraction is that she likes that he has no filter, but that also appears to be the biggest source of her frustration with him.

Then again, none of the characters' motivations are very clear. We are told that Laird is a brilliant and creative coder, although the closest the film comes to showing him be brilliant and creative is brainstorming the titles for new video games. We learn that he has dated Hollywood starlets and supermodels. So why, at the age of 32, would he suddenly focus on this one, much younger and completely inexperienced person as the love of his life? The film has Laird tell Stephanie he loves that she "calls him on his shit," but that implied respect for her independence doesn't quite track with the character's profile as a guy who frequently uses money to buy away his problems — including encouraging Stephanie to drop out of school and work directly for him.

For that matter, it's not obvious why Ned would actually hate Laird this much. Sure, he's crude and does inappropriate things, but he's successful, seems to treat Stephanie well and is, if anything, overly solicitous in welcoming the family. We're meant to believe it's that Ned is just an old-fashioned prude. But it's established that he and his wife (Megan Mullally) are huge Kiss fans, which isn't usually a trait that goes along with prudery. Or, at least, it wouldn't be, if the Kiss thing were an actual character detail that the film took seriously. Instead, it's largely just a set-up for an awkward and somewhat depressing cameo by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley (even in full makeup — perhaps especially in full makeup — the guys have not aged well).

Perhaps the answers to some of these questions might be offered up in the inevitable sequels, Why Her? and Why Them? But given the lazy, cynical approach taken here, the only real question that matters is…Who Cares?

Why Him?

2 out of 5 stars

Rated R. Directed by John Hamburg

Starring Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch.

Now playing.

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