Why Him? review

When a movie starts out with a scene that culminates in James Franco coming within a hair’s breadth of flaunting his downstairs partner, what more can one say?

Such is how Why Him chooses to open in one of many segments that show how typical much of the film’s humour, or attempts at such, ultimately is. Like so many of its predecessors this film represents what seems to be the standard for most comedy features – fast-paced, low-brow and ultimately aimless set pieces strung together by a mandatory narrative, here with Christmas window dressing.

The plot, in so much as there is one, is simple – Ned Fleming, played by Bryan Cranston (who alternates between wanting to be somewhere else and trying his absolute hardest to deliver a respectable performance), is an old-school by-the-book owner of a failing printing press trying everything he can to keep his ailing company afloat. In the middle of a birthday presentation given by his son Scotty (Griffin Gluck), his daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) drops in via Skype – and inadvertently reveals Franco’s waggling rear end to a mortified audience, inside and outside of the film.

So it spirals downward from there as Stephanie decides to eschew the family’s traditional Christmas holiday and take them to her boyfriend’s ridiculously expensive pad. Upon arrival, her beau is quick to reveal himself. Enter Laird (Franco), a walking, talking tattoo parlour who adorns his house with animals in various stages of copulating and lives paper-free. Ned is instantly suspicious, and after having a heart-to-heart Laird vows that by Christmas he will take Stephanie’s hand in marriage, with his blessing.

So goes the plot that follows its typical beats save for a slight twist at the very end, a narrative that essentially exists to ferry the characters from A to B so that hijinks can ensue before the story pretends for a moment to be serious. But even the flimsiest narrative can be waved away as long as the meat is worthwhile.

In a comedy, there are two things that must be examined keenly, those being the humour and the characters. Ideally a comedy should strive to be funny while also being impactful or relatable. Why Him, ultimately, is neither. The humour – as demonstrated by the opening scene – is predominantly simplistic. Laird prioritises being as loud, vulgar and obnoxious as possible, and it is from his antics and eccentricities, such as keeping a dead moose in a tub of urine, that most of the "humour" takes root, next to crass innuendos and unsubtle visual metaphors. The film falls victim to the curse of displaying most of its outstanding ‘comedic’ moments in its trailer, and unless you’re fond of moose testicles you’ll find they’ve overstayed their welcome.

Regarding characters, the film does succeed in painting a surprisingly detailed and sympathetic picture of Ned, further enhanced by Cranston’s performance which is generally solid. He is a humble, down-to-earth father and career businessman left stupefied by the pace of technological progression – most of his scenes involving his colleagues at work are related to them desperately attempting to secure deals and make connections, often ending in failure on both a business and a personal level. He is the dinosaur, a relic of a bygone age, and after having built himself up on an honest living he resents Laird almost immediately for living a life of luxury and having wealth seemingly land in his lap – even if later developments, instigated by Ned himself, reveal that not everything is sunny.

Cranston is a put-upon everyman trying his best to make the most of what he perceives as a bad situation, and thus we find ourselves understanding his plight and rooting for him far more often even if he becomes a little underhanded as the film progresses. The solidity of his performance even lends itself well to the few moments of genuine comedy that the film has – credit must be given to him for making an extended toilet joke somewhat bearable.

The same cannot be said, however, for his co-star. Franco’s Laird, the very antithesis of what Ned is and initially loathed by him because of it, almost constantly presents himself as an incorrigible buffoon, and while Ned’s shtick is that he is a stubborn and excessively protective stick in the mud Laird’s gimmick is that along with being habitually incapable of shutting his mouth when it counts he seems completely oblivious to even the most basic of social norms.

His behaviour extends to his interactions with his on-screen partner – deeper into the film a relatively serious conversation with Stephanie, even slightly heartfelt, lapses back into standard fare and dives straight into raunchy territory without missing a beat. Their dialogue mostly consists of one party making accusations and the other making apologies which scarcely matter up until the close, and their interactions do nothing to properly explain why Stephanie is so infatuated with a creature so clueless and irritating beyond adamantly telling her father that she loves him.

The other cast members mostly flit about. Deutch plays her role earnestly, perhaps too much so, but is treated more like an object than a human being at times. Keegan-Michael Key plays Gustav, a German "real estate manager" and Laird’s effective caretaker who is one of the few constant bright sparks and his impromptu martial arts tests throughout the film are certainly amusing. The rest of the cast ranges from plain, such as Megan Mullaley’s Barb whose two noteworthy scenes involves eating paper and a misunderstanding of the term "vaping", to intensely annoying – Scotty, starting out benign, takes to Laird like a moth to a flame, and the two share a rather insipid "bonding" moment that culminates in a reference to Game of Thrones – a show that would rather not be associated with this film – while laying the groundwork for deeply insightful remarks on "motorboating". Some truly baffling cameos only serve to make things more perplexing.

Writer-director Josh Hamburg tries to replicate his past successes, but seven years on from I Love You, Man the result is a swing and a miss. Why Him does not quite make the viewer ask "Why me?", but its few moments of genuine comedy and good performance are drowned out by puerile jokes and egregious showboating that abuse the film’s rating for all it’s worth.

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Jack Gibbs is a Screenjabber contributor

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