Movie Review: ‘WHY HIM?’ – Why bother!

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

WHY HIM? | 1h 51min | R
Directed by: John Hamburg
Starring: James FrancoBryan Cranston, Zoey DeutchMegan Mullally, Keegan-Michael KeyJacob KempZack Pearlman

Bringing a boyfriend home to meet the parents can be a stressful event for anyone. It’s fertile, albeit well explored, territory for comedy to grow. We’ve seen it before in films like MEET THE PARENTS and SON IN LAW and on a multitude of TV sitcoms, most recently with the British series CUCKOO. Co-writer/ director John Hamburg’s WHY HIM? gets everything about comedy – and movies in general – wrong. Painfully dull, excruciatingly unfunny and mind-numbingly frustrating, there’s a multitude of reasons why you’ll be left asking, “Why did I even bother?”

Twenty-two-year-old Stanford student Stephanie Fleming (Zoey Deutch) has always been super close with her conservative businessman father, Ned (Bryan Cranston) – or so says this film multiple times, though it’s never shown or felt. Anyways, all Hell breaks loose when she brings her dad, mom Barb (Megan Mullally) and younger brother Scotty (Griffin Gluck) out to California to stay on the palatial estate of the boyfriend she’s been hiding – thirty-two-year-old millionaire app developer Laird Mayhew (James Franco). Honestly, I don’t even know why these characters are given last names as they are barely developed otherwise. Again, I digress. Laird is loud, irreverent and inappropriate, consistently sporting more tattoos than clothes. He has no filter, no personal boundaries and no paper in his house (a multi-gag joke). Why is Papa Fleming so wound up over this guy if he is wealthy and clearly head over heels in love with his daughter? Because reasons.

Bryan Cranston, Megan Mullally and James Franco in WHY HIM? Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

There’s a multitude of reasons this movie doesn’t work. The Flemings never feel like a real family. They are a “movie family,” gangly and awkward. The actors do what they can inside the parameters of their individual roles given the lackluster material, but together they’ve got no chemistry. A slideshow at Ned’s birthday party doesn’t exactly ingratiate them to us. Part of the fun of this should be watching Cranston be angry, uncomfortable and thrown off balance by Franco’s annoying, obtrusive free spirit – only the ante in their rivalry is never upped. The cameo parade of doesn’t help either. I don’t blame the actors for this mess; Franco is the brightest he’s ever been on screen. Cranston is still figuring out what his movie fans want to see him in since they didn’t turn out for THE INFILTRATOR, nor show up for his LBJ project. The sequence where a baked Barb tries to seduce Ned is Mullally’s moment to shine, getting to embrace the physical comedy of her thankless role. But even that isn’t funny enough – there’s no reason for Ned to refuse, because there’s no setup of people barging in on them. Actually, the funniest parts are the two (not three!) interstitials involving Randy the intern (Jacob Kent) – a.k.a. the two times I sorta, half-heartedly chuckled during this mess.

At one point, I was left crying – and not because I was deep in fits of laughter. I shed real tears over the fact none of the people involved knows what comedy writing entails. There are jokes, but none of them work. The pieces are there – only Hamburg (who did the legitimately lovely I LOVE YOU, MAN) and co-writer Ian Helfer never assemble them correctly. I found myself punching up many of the jokes and restructuring the entire script in my head on the way home. A lot of red ink was involved in my draft. The PINK PANTHER bit – where Laird’s butler, Gustav (Keegan Michael-Key), pulls a Cato – has to be explained to audiences and doesn’t play out as it should for the joke to be funny. Other sequences – like the one with Ned not being able to get the Japanese washlet to work (a gag that feels archaic) – are endless, stretching way beyond their expiration. It’s not that special kind of comedic awkward where it oscillates from awkward to funny repeatedly. This is just awkward, awkward. But credit to the editor, William Kerr, who must’ve convinced Hamburg to shorten the scene where Ned and his IT guy (Zack Pearlman) guess Laird’s computer password. Judd Apatow would’ve had them riff for twenty more minutes. You’ll see the payoff for every gag coming a mile away. However, the filmmakers even manage to screw that up (e.g. the Christmas tree incident).

Megan Mullally, Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, and Griffin Gluck in WHY HIM? Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

The worst is when, after you’ve given up on the filmmakers (and, let’s face it, life), they attempt to apply resonance. Steph’s argument where she tells Ned and Laird that she feels like “property” is laughable, if not unintentionally funny. Oh? So this is what we’re doing?! She’s barely one dimensional. We’re told a few times she’s intelligent, but we’re never shown these things. When KISS shows up (again, you see the setup a mile away), and Laird says to her during his proposal, “it’s your favorite band,” we think, “Wait. Is it?! It’s the parents’ favorite band!” We don’t actually know what she likes.

The only reason why WHY HIM? manages to get a modicum of respect is that people got paid for this: Guild/ union health insurance was continued. The crew had a cush studio gig. The actors were compensated decently. I’d also be happy to learn that this kind of drivel is what helped production shingle 21 Laps fund ARRIVAL, but something tells me that’s not how movie producing works.

WHY HIM? opens on December 23.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.