Directed by: John Hamburg
Premise: A Midwestern family travels to California for the holidays to meet their college-age daughter and her boyfriend (James Franco), a Silicon Valley billionaire. The father (Bryan Cranston) is put off by the young man’s brash and free spirited ways.
What Works: Why Him? is a story of generational conflict and it does that aspect of the story pretty well. Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally are cast as the parents and they play the part of reserved Midwestern elders in a way that is authentic. This is a movie about a patriarchal figure being displaced by a younger man and the filmmakers set these characters up to antagonize each other without making either of them villainous. Cranston’s character is a small business owner whose printing company has fallen on hard times and he struggles to keep the shop afloat while digital technology draws away most of his customers. His potential son-in-law is a captain of Silicon Valley and that allows the conflict to go beyond the obvious. Why Him? benefits from the casting of James Franco as the billionaire boyfriend. Franco plays the role with tremendous enthusiasm and despite how foul mouthed he is and how ill-advised many of his decisions may be, the character’s desperation to win over his potential in-laws is endearing. His relationship with the daughter, played by Zoey Deutch, is sweet it its own way and the filmmakers provide just enough private moments between the couple to make their relationship credible. Why Him? is an R-rated comedy and the film is sufficiently funny. It’s never side splitting or particularly smart but the film does deliver jokes on a consistent enough basis to succeed as a comedy.
What Doesn’t: It’s fitting that Why Him? stars Bryan Cranston, Megan Mullally, and James Franco. These actors have had roles on television sitcoms like Malcom in the Middle, Will & Grace, and Freaks and Geeks and Why Him? is essentially a two-hour long R-rated sitcom episode. More than that, it is the special holiday episode in which the family travels to a new set and meets a new character. The conventions and the plot devices show through and the movie could probably have included a laugh track without it feeling terribly out of place. And like a lot of television sitcoms, most everything about Why Him? is mediocre. The characters and the conflicts don’t have the size or depth befitting a feature film. What it does have are several raunchy set pieces and a steady stream of profanities. Having the boyfriend curse in front of his in-laws is funny in an uncomfortable way the first time but most of Why Him? consists of variations on the same gag. The movie offers little beyond that. Part of the reason Why Him? is only marginally successful as a comedy is its flabby organization. The movie runs just short of two hours and there’s no reason for it to be that long. The filmmakers just don’t seem to know how to set up and execute a joke. And while the R-rated humor is the one thing that distinguishes Why Him? from a television sitcom, the movie has a lot of awkward shifts in tone. The filmmakers attempt to alternate moments of vulgarity with heartwarming sweetness. The transitions are forced and the ill-fitting pieces cancel each other out. But the worst element of Why Him? is the sexist ideas at the center of it. The movie is about a young man supplanting the older man in the patriarchal structure of the family and the daughter is treated as a token that gets passed between the two of them. The movie has all the familiar retrograde ideas about young women and especially the panic about her sexuality. The filmmakers seem to have realized this problem and attempt a course correction in the ending but it comes across disingenuous.
Bottom Line: Why Him? is the kind of movie that aims for mediocrity and satisfies its own low expectations. Viewers who enjoy raunchy humor and television sitcoms should find it satisfying enough. But the movie never escapes the impression that the actors are slumming.
Episode: #629 (January 8, 2017)