Bryan Cranston Struggles With Vulgar Sensibilities in 'Why Him?'

Director John Hamburg’s holiday comedy is stuck between bawdy farce and syrupy feel-gooder.

Why Him?

Director: John Hamburg
Cast: James Franco, Bryan Cranston, Megan Mullaly, Zoey Deutch, Keegan-Michael Key
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Year: 2016
UK Release Date: 2016-12-26
US Release Date: 2016-12-23

There’s a familiar sweetness and old-fashioned charm to the new Christmas comedy, Why Him? It’s quite remarkable that director John Hamburg manages to champion family values amidst a chorus of f-bombs and toilet humor (quite literally). Each character is lovable, there are humorous bits scattered throughout, and James Franco and Bryan Cranston are in fine form. It should be a comedic slam dunk. So how does Why Him? manage to be so… not funny?

Ned Fleming (Cranston) is a doting father, dedicated family man, and responsible business owner. He’s also been living under a rock for the last 30 years, apparently, as modern devices leave him completely mystified. Smartphones, e-vape pens, and any form of art more challenging than a landscape painting turn this otherwise competent man into a blithering idiot. It’s a credit to Cranston’s brilliance that we almost believe a 55-year-old man could be so adorably clueless.

Despite the filmmaker’s erroneous assertion that 50 is the new 80, the detailing on Ned Fleming is superb. He’s a printer whose business, not surprisingly, is struggling to compete with the immediacy of a digital world. People don’t want big paper advertisements anymore; they want e-stamps and web banners. A flustered Ned brainstorms with his partner (Cedric the Entertainer) about keeping Big Lots happy, even as his business plunges toward bankruptcy. Basically, Ned is a dinosaur that doesn’t realize the meteor has already crashed.

Ned’s daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) is his pride and joy, which makes her overbearing new boyfriend, Laird (Franco), all the more threatening. Laird inadvertently introduces himself (and his butt) to Ned during one of Stephanie’s skype chats home. Like most of the gags in Why Him?, this is a mildly amusing moment that drags on far too long. Rather than delivering sharp shocks, the filmmakers pad each scene in the hopes that their gifted comedic actors can make something funny out of nothing.

Franco is in lovable goofball mode for this outing; a motion blur of chiseled abs and questionable tattoos. The ingenious twist on Laird is that he isn’t some slacker from the world of Pineapple Express, but a successful entrepreneur who was learning computer code before he graduated from diapers. Laird is loaded with the kind of generational wealth that Ned can only dream about, which makes him both a sexual and a psychological threat. How can Ned ever hope to keep Stephanie’s heart when Laird can buy her happiness out of petty cash?

In what is essentially a generational clash over lifestyles and values, director Hamburg (I Love You, Man, Along Came Polly) mines some familiar comedic ground. This includes a sexually repressed little brother (Griffin Gluck), a sexually frustrated wife (Megan Mullally), and a painfully lame celebrity cameo you can see coming from a mile away. There are plenty of raunchy gags to modernize the festivities, but this story is staler than gluten-free bread.

In fact, this movie feels about 20 years overdue. The digital boom of the mid-'90s preemptively shifted the balance of power into younger hands. Now, nearly a generation removed from the demographic upheaval, a story about young whippersnappers supplanting old farts feels hopelessly outdated.

Despite the familiarity of the premise, the story draws strength from the similarities between Ned and Laird. On first glance, they couldn’t be more different. Laird is a dunderhead who adorns his gaudy mansion with paintings of copulating animals and pays his assistant (Keegan-Michael Key) to attack him randomly (a la Cato from The Pink Panther). Ned is the kind of guy who knows each of his employees by name and is the trash-talking king of his bowling league. What they have in common, however, is the good-hearted desire to make everyone they love happy... even if it makes them miserable. It’s a solid premise that should pay off with big laughs over and over again.

Please don't adblock PopMatters.

We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.

We can't survive without your support.

Sadly, the comedic formula of Why Him? merely fizzles. Ned forgoes Christmas with his family and friends in Michigan to meet Laird at his decadent California mansion. What follows is a string of ‘fish out of water’ gags that never gain any forward momentum. This makes Ned a passive observer of the chaos and squanders Cranston’s impeccable comic timing on a series of glorified reaction shots.

The correct equation, of course, is to have Laird trek to Michigan in order to impress Ned and his kin. Like a hapless Clark Griswold, Ned tries to maintain his Christmas traditions while an upstart Laird tries to bring ‘happiness’ through his peculiar (and vulgar) sensibilities. Basically, you transfer all the winning bits from Laird’s mansion to Ned’s comfortable retreat. Instead of a passive Ned, you now have two active protagonists trying to create a Christmas for the ages. Alas, it was not to be.

There are plenty of chuckles sprinkled throughout the bloated running time of Why Him?, but it never finds that sublime sweet spot where the chuckles become sustained laughs. It’s a frustrating experience that feels like being stuck somewhere between a bawdy farce and syrupy feel-gooder. Why Him? might be worth checking out for Francophiles, but Cranston lovers will be left pining for his tighty whities.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.