by Philip Price
John Hamburg hasn't directed a feature film since 2009, but that film was “I Love You, Man.” Seven years and several television directing gigs later and Hamburg has delivered “Why Him?” Personally, I love “I Love You, Man.” It has become one of those reliable movies you can put on at any given time and are guaranteed to laugh and enjoy while having the added bonus of intelligently breaking down the barriers of masculinity and the weird culture surrounding male friendships. This automatically sets up an expectation that the follow-up won't be nearly as good, especially based on the rather outlandish trailers we received for “Why Him?” The thing is, it wasn't that “I Love You, Man” had a more seasoned or credible screenwriter, but in fact Hamburg himself seemingly had a lot to do with both screenplays with his co-writer on “Why Him?” admittedly having more promising if not limited previous works on his resume whereas Hamburg's co-writer on “I Love You, Man,” Larry Levin, has such credits as “Doctor Dolittle” and “Dr. Dolittle 2” to his name. Of course, comedy does and doesn't have a lot to do with the writing as the funniest jokes in the world can be written down, but if they don't have the right people to execute them they'll still fall as flat as the worst types of jokes. What is on the paper provides only a basis for the type of comedy hoping to be obtained as well as a launching pad for talented comedians and improvisational actors to take the material to new heights. And so, it isn't that “I Love You, Man” necessarily had better writing going for it, but rather that it was a novel premise that thrived on the chemistry and appeal of its two stars. “Why Him?” doesn't necessarily have as interesting a dynamic at its core and its stars aren't nearly as charming as Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, but that doesn't automatically render the film a failure on the comedic front. By all accounts, “Why Him?” is a perfectly accessible broad if not rather crude comedy that utilizes said broadness to relate to whole families in Middle America, teenagers and older parents that walk into the film because the trailers featured a scenario familiar to them or because they saw the guy from “Breaking Bad” being funny. “Why Him?” is a perfect example of why mainstream comedies both work on certain levels and why they can easily fail on so many others. Though it may not garner me much credibility I rather enjoyed “Why Him?” to the point I'm not grumpy enough to get mad at a movie for failing to be as introspective about the dynamics it means to document while instead making up for such a lack of substance with easy laughs.
Things begin predictably enough when we get a slight introduction to Stephanie Fleming (Zoey Deutch) and her boyfriend Laird Mayhew (James Franco) and how comfortable Laird is in their relationship when Stephanie, who is a senior at Stanford, invites him over to her dorm to "Netflix and chill" whereas Laird responds by completely undoing the subtlety of what his girlfriend was trying to convey by asking explicitly if that means they're going to have sex once he arrives. Given the next scene starts by establishing the rest of Stephanie's family is back in good ole Michigan celebrating her father's birthday along with all of his employees that work at the printing company he runs (and at an Applebee's no less) where her younger brother, Scotty (Griffin Gluck), has set up a surprise Skype call with Stephanie one can guess where things are going. That said, this sequence still garnered a handful of gasps and "oh no's" from the rather small audience I saw the film with. This more or less encapsulates the tone of Why Him? as it repeats this joke of Laird barging in and doing something brash or idiotic in front of Stephanie's parents, Ned (Bryan Cranston) and Barb (Megan Mullally) Fleming, time and time again before Barb is finally seduced by Laird's charm and Ned eventually blows up and says things he'll undoubtedly learn to regret two scenes later. This, of course, all leading to a climactic third act moment where Ned and Laird realize they're not so different from one another, make up, and welcome a depressingly old looking Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley in full KISS regalia into their home because, "why not?" These are things that are easy to complain about and “Why Him?” will give any seasoned movie goer reason enough to do so, but “Why Him?” is a movie designed for viewers who only venture out to the cinema once or twice a year with an excursion including this movie undoubtedly being part of a group decision around the holiday season. To this effect, it is easy to see how such a film might be a pleasant enough distraction while providing enough consistent laughs to make audiences feel they didn't waste their money. That may not be the most resounding of endorsements, but there is a clear effort on the part of “Why Him?” and especially Franco who, while seeming to know the type of movie he's in, is having a blast playing-up this ludicrous archetype.
Granted, “Why Him?” is the movie James Franco makes in order to pay for all his other endeavors. It's a solid paycheck, keeps him in good standing with a major studio, and cements the fact he's still a recognizable face to mainstream viewers when most of his work is aimed at more niche audiences. And while such conditions may apply to this project in particular the plus side is that Hamburg more or less allows Franco to be an unabashedly James Franco-type with all formalities and inhibitions thrown to the wind. Franco having crafted the public persona he has it's not hard to believe the multi-faceted actor has thrown himself totally into the skin of this brash tech billionaire with a heart full of good intentions. As a result, Franco going full throttle is inevitably humorous from time to time with the extended bits concerning how much Laird influences different members of the family leading to solid moments for both Gluck and especially Mullally who takes advantage of every minute of screen time she is afforded. While other bits including a running joke about Laird's futuristic toilets, his paperless house, and his five star chef that makes portions so small and so unique it's impossible to enjoy what a five star chef actually makes mostly fall flat if not garner an occasional chuckle, but don't worry-the movie never stops trying. This is to say the best moments come from the strained character dynamics presented in the core narrative. And, as stated, Franco's central showcase is as giving as his alter ego which bodes well for Bryan Cranston who seems to now be picking projects based solely on how much the paycheck is. Were it not for how well Franco bounces off of Cranston's flustered father figure it would seem exhausting just to watch Cranston go through the motions. In what was one of the more anticipated transitions from the small screen to the big in quite some time Cranston is quickly losing much of the credibility he built as Walter White. It doesn't take long for audiences to forget the one good thing you did in favor of the several crap pieces you made and Cranston's good will seems to be beginning to slip. That isn't to say the actor is necessarily terrible here or that he doesn't fit the bill of average Midwestern dad that refuses to adapt and who says he trusts his children, but is still overbearing. After all, the guy essentially played this character for seven seasons on “Malcolm in the Middle,” but in “Why Him?” it can't help but feel as if Cranston is above this material and that he's fully aware of that. His character is meant to be frustrated much of the time, but it can't help but feel Cranston genuinely feels the same way for signing on to such a project.
With everything “Why Him?” attempts to cram into its story those who are easily offended by such things will find it frustrating that the woman at the center of this back and forth between father and potential husband is never really given the time to flesh herself out as well as her feelings not necessarily being taken into consideration. That can be said and complained about, but the movie makes a point of stating this so as to say both the Ned and Laird characters, by the end of the film, have lost sight of the real purpose to their even knowing one another. Deutch has proven herself to be a capable talent and charismatic presence (see “Everybody Wants Some!!”) despite being the product of pure nepotism and though the movie is clearly about the predictable confrontations that can arise between and father and son-in-law it would have been nice had the film given the catalyst female character a little more depth. We understand that the premise is not meant to serve as a story for Deutch's Stephanie, but in order to understand why Laird might fight so hard to win over her resistant father it would have been nice had Hamburg and Ian Helfer's screenplay given her a little more reason as to why she's worth fighting for. Rather, the film allows for random supporting characters to be more memorable, most notably in Keegan Michael-Key's Gustav that sees the ever-charming comedian doing an ever-changing Indian/European accent as Franco's right hand man that makes sure the house and Laird's affairs are in order as well as being something of his spiritual guide and trainer as, at times, Gustav will jump out of nowhere and try to catch Laird off guard. It is through Key's performance that some of the best moments of the film are born and the same can be said for when the likes of Cedric the Entertainer, Adam Devine, Andrew Rannells and Casey Wilson show up to provide a needed reprieve from the antics of Franco that, while humorous, can be so profane to the point of trying so hard they stand to sometimes be more off-putting than pleasing. Hamburg seemed to recognize this in the editing room the closer he got to the end of his film though, as he piles in more characters and more heartfelt moments as the movie enters its third act, but while predictability was always going to be a factor in this rather safe studio comedy that only wants to pretend to be daring it comes down to the fact that at the end of the day I laughed enough to recommend putting “Why Him?” on in the background at your Friendsmas next year if not for nothing else, but to provide intermittent laughter between your own conversations. It's at least good for that.