Bryan Cranston Struggles With Vulgar Sensibilities in 'Why Him?'
Director John Hamburg’s holiday comedy is stuck between bawdy farce and syrupy feel-gooder.
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.
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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.