Actors often fall prey to the limited thinking of typecasting, or being cast primarily in roles presumed to be their “type,” but it’s a problem not exclusive to talent in front of the cameras. A screenwriter named John Hamburg co-wrote the hit Hollywood comedy Meet the Parents, and went on to a career as a director (the comedies Along Came Polly and I Love You, Man). So it’s no surprise to find that 20th Century Fox brought Hamburg on to direct and co-script Why Him?, a movie that nakedly apes Meet the Parents, only with a twist: this time the point of view doesn’t belong to the son-in-law-to-be but rather the father, horrified by the fiancé chosen by his daughter.
As with Meet the Parents, much of the appeal of the film rests with the leading players. Bryan Cranston, busting out the comedy chops honed on TV’s Malcolm in the Middle, plays Ned Fleming, CEO of a Michigan printing company on the decline in our paperless-trending world. While the screws keep tightening on his business and threatening layoffs to beloved workers, Ned gets some other disconcerting news: his 22-year-old daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch)—a student at Stanford—has been secretly dating 32-year-old tech magnate Laird Mayhew, played by Palo Alto’s own James Franco.
And so the Christmas-get-together plot pits considerably out-cool-ed dad Ned against Laird, a sweet-natured guy who’s nevertheless blithely douche-y—from his conspicuous consumption (a 2018-model computerized Japanese toilet/bidet) to his tattoos and pornstache. Most of the comedy relies on generation-gap gags or, indeed, 2016-model toilet humor as Ned flails on Laird’s nouveau-riche turf, complete with oddball lawn-to-table menu and an artwork consisting of a moose suspended in its own urine (“It’s meant to symbolize the way our culture has imprisoned our minds”).
Why Him? is nothing if not formulaic, but it has its passing charms, like Megan Mullally’s fully committed, fully amusing performance as Ned’s wife Barb (plus Keegan-Michael Key’s as Laird’s try-hard valet) and its essentially generous nature, trusting in Stephanie’s promise that Laird’s “heart is always in the right place.” Occasionally, there’s an interesting bit of satire, like the young people being cheerily comfortable with a total social transparency (a.k.a. a total lack of privacy).
Ultimately, the hacky plot (partly credited to Franco’s buddy Jonah Hill) is also too primal not to work, even if it is little more than the frame on which to hang stupid jokes, several of which you’ll see coming a mile away (a silly cameo appearance, the fate of the urine-filled moose tank). In the end, to the extent that the movie works, it works because of Cranston and Franco, who work hard and smart to make their characters always at least as believable as they are funny.