Why Him?

Why Him? is a perfect title for this gross-out comedy, clearly intended to describe the repulsion of printing businessman Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston) to the 32-year-old tech billionaire his daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) is dating. Laird (James Franco) is a socially maladjusted Silicon Valley genius. He constantly swears, talks about his penis in polite conversation and impulsively acquires tattoos – the latest an exact replica of the Flemings’ holiday card.

Laird’s over-the-top bro gaucheness is naturally off-putting to the conservative Ned. Or just about anyone with more than a few brain cells.

A contrived, last-minute change to the Flemings’ Christmas plans has Ned, his wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and teenage son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) spending the holidays with Stephanie at Laird’s sprawling mansion, where the buffalo literally roam free, among llamas and other exotic creatures.

The mansion is a Xanadu of nouveau-riche tech geekery: Justine, a Siri-like virtual assistant wired into the ceiling (explicitly voiced by Kaley Cuoco), intrusively tries to “help” the incredulous family adjust; a paperless Japanese toilet equipped with cleansing sprays humiliates Ned’s simple desire to take a dump; and crude paintings of humping animals adorn the walls.

The centrepiece of Laird’s lair is a glass box holding a dead moose suspended in its own urine — the modern comedy’s version of Chekhov’s gun that’s just begging to shatter. As the rest of the family warm up to Laird’s puppy-like charm, the only thing Ned the Luddite father is slightly impressed by is a bowling alley installed just for him, because Laird so desperately wants to impress Stephanie’s family. As this is a comedy of manners, “estate manager” Gustav, played by Keegan-Michael Key with pointy sideburns which resemble a headset, keeps the house running smoothly and coaches Laird on how to be a civilized human being.

Why Him? plays out rather predictably, as father and daughter’s boyfriend compete in a series of competitions and fisticuffs to settle their masculine and intergenerational differences. The backdrop of the film is distracting enough: Kiss makes a cameo appearance, old people are thoroughly made fun of for not understanding technology, a grotesque scene finds Barb getting high and horny, in that order, and an ignorant Ned describes Kristen Stewart as a “Plain Jane.”

His Midwestern-based printing business is pointedly seen as an outdated business model, while Californian tech is painted as some bright future, despite the fact that it makes whack-jobs like Laird extremely rich.

Despite its sharp cultural references, Why Him? is not very smart. Nonetheless, on the strength of the cast, it is quite funny. The casting is almost too good. The title could easily refer to Cranston: why would such a talented actor take on a humiliating, thankless role? Unsurprisingly, he nails the straight man.

The metaphorical impotence Walter White felt in Breaking Bad is back on display, and Cranston’s anger simmers below the surface like a bubbling beaker of liquid meth. While most of the film acts as a litmus test for Ned’s patience, Cranston creates an endearing, believable character who still knows how to let loose when in his element (bowling, meeting Kiss, etc.).

The title Why Him? could also refer to the laser focus on male characters at the expense of the women – especially Stephanie, who’s treated like a prized possession. She’s just another wholesome Daddy’s Girl with a handful of lines and zero personality. Admittedly, the ending challenges the protective measures of fathers and romantic partners alike in deciding what’s best for women, as Stephanie is allowed a modicum of screen time to yell at both Ned and Laird. But it comes a little too late, and quite frankly, proves the entire film a moot point.

Originally published in The National Post (December 23, 2016).