'Why Him?': Film Review

Bryan Cranston plays a protective father and James Franco his daughter's rich and obnoxious new boyfriend in this comedy from the director of 'I Love You, Man.'

The first scene of Why Him? tells you exactly what you're in for. A young woman named Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) speaks via video chat to her older boyfriend, Laird (James Franco). Their banter goes from flirty to dirty, as Laird riffs on how horny he is and Stephanie coos reassuringly, "I'll see your almost-black balls later" (yes, you read that right). Then, like an exclamation point, a sudden flash of Laird's pubic hair — and we're off on a 111-minute marathon of slangy idioms and expletives, gross-out gags and unbridled raunch, some of it funny, much of it merely strenuous.

Why Him? is about what happens when Stephanie introduces Laird to her family, namely her doting, protective father (Bryan Cranston). This latest iteration of a story we've seen many times before — from Vincente Minnelli's Father of the Bride to Meet the Parents (which was co-written by this film's director, John Hamburg) — isn't especially good, nor is it bad. Frankly, those qualifiers barely seem relevant.

The thing to know about Why Him? is that it’s utterly emblematic (or symptomatic?) of today's R-rated studio comedies, which have drifted so far into sex-and-scatology one-upmanship that the titular scene from American Pie, for instance, now seems downright quaint. In this past summer's Bad Moms, fed-up suburban matriarchs pounded shots, made out with one another and used a friend's head to demonstrate how to handle an uncircumcised penis — all child's play compared to Why Him?, which features a kid getting his face pummeled by moose testicles; the same kid "motorboating" his dad (if you're not familiar with that usage, don't look it up); and a sequence sure to make fathers and daughters of all ages squirm in discomfort.

Of course, the best semi-recent entries in the lewd-and-crude comedic subgenre — Bridesmaids and Knocked Up, to name two — are actually about something. Even in a so-so example like the aforementioned Bad Moms, the raucous behavior is grounded in reality (the pressure 21st century women feel to be, do and have it all). In Why Him?, though, there's little rhyme or reason to the characters' anarchic flailing and appalling judgment. Almost nothing anyone does registers as recognizably human; it’s all just a pretext for yet another round of envelope-pushing outrageousness.

The result is an efficient, but grim and cynical machine of a comedy: You'll laugh, but it'll likely be a visceral response to the sheer, bullying spectacle of it all rather than a reaction of genuine amusement. And you'll hate yourself in the morning.

The plot is straightforward: Sunny-tempered Stanford student Stephanie has fallen in love with Laird, a 32-year-old Silicon Valley billionaire. Stephanie invites her wholesome family from Michigan — proud papa Ned (Cranston), chipper mom Barb (Megan Mullally) and precocious little bro Scotty (Griffin Gluck) — to meet Laird and spend the holidays at his Xanadu-like estate, where llamas roam the sprawling grounds and live-in interns roam the equally sprawling interior.

Stephanie appears inexplicably sanguine about the situation, given that Laird is, you know, the worst — a monstrous frat-boy/hipster hybrid in drop-crotch pants and ridiculous tattoos (including one, on his back, of Stephanie's family) whose hobbies include collecting bad art, giving out unsolicited and inappropriate kisses, graphic oversharing and gratuitous cursing. Hamburg and co-writer Ian Helfer don't even try to make a persuasive case for why down-to-earth Stephanie would fall for this narcissistic trainwreck; the relationship that interests the filmmakers is the one between Ned and Laird.

Hamburg is clearly fascinated by fraught homosocial bonds: He directed the slyly amusing I Love You, Man (2009), in which dorky groom-to-be Paul Rudd recruits cool dude Jason Segel to be his best man, and co-penned Zoolander and Meet the Parents, both centered around macho rivalries. Even in Hamburg's 2004 rom-com Along Came Polly, the most vivid moment isn't between Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston; it’s during a pickup basketball game, when Stiller's face gets slammed — in slow-mo and with stomach-churning sound effects — against the hairy, fleshy, sweaty torso of a shirtless opponent.

That panicky image of forced male intimacy finds its equivalent in Why Him? when a bathrobe-clad Laird, having just emerged from a hot shower, pulls Ned into a warm, wet embrace. But it’s not just Laird’s touchy-feely metrosexuality and blithe disregard for boundaries that cause Ned to cringe. The young man has made a killing in the tech industry while Ned is barely holding on to his small independent printing company; Laird’s seemingly effortless wealth and extravagant lifestyle are an affront to Ned's old-school work ethic and traditional middle-class values.

There's comic potential in this clash between millennial frivolity and middle-aged Midwestern modesty, and you can’t accuse Why Him? of lacking energy or purpose. If anything, the film is relentless in its determination to make your jaw drop at its various feats of shock humor. But it’s so busy forcing its main characters through those elaborately crass set pieces — like meat through a grinder — that they have little room to develop any unexpected rhythms or textures. They’re props rather than people.

That said, the leads perform their respective shticks with skill. Franco is gonzo (and, of course, winkingly self-reflexive), while Cranston allows Ned’s rage to bubble right up through his affable Everydad facade. Mullally, meanwhile, is such a consummate pro that she’s able to wring giggles — and emerge with her dignity intact — from a scene in which a stoned Barb tries to pleasure Ned with her feet.

Upstaging everyone is Keegan-Michael Key as Laird's loyal Euro assistant Gustav, by far the movie's most original creation. The expression on his face as he rescues an indigestion-plagued Ned from a very complicated modern toilet is almost worth the price of admission alone. There are cameos from Adam DeVine (Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates) and the wonderful Andrew Rannells (Girls) — as well as, less pleasurably, from Elon Musk and KISS.

Hamburg directs with the requisite panache, giving his material the forward momentum it needs to distract us from the absence of real feeling beneath all the noise and motion. Still, the rules of bromantic comedy dictate that obnoxious Laird is actually a lost boy with a heart of gold, and that he and crusty old Ned resolve their issues and hug it out. The moose testicles looked more authentic.

Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Production companies: Red Hour Films, 21 Laps, TSG Entertainment
Cast: Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Megan Mullally, Zoey Deutch, Cedric the Entertainer, Keegan-Michael Key, Griffin Gluck
Director: John Hamburg
Writers: John Hamburg, Ian Helfer
Producers: Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Jonah Hill
Cinematographer: Kris Kachikis
Editor: William Kerr
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Production designer: Matthew Holt
Casting: Rachel Tenner

Rated R, 111 minutes

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