Nothing screams a middle aged man writing a teen-targeted comedy like an extended opening gag involving “Netflix and chill.” The subject of the gag in question, the parents (Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally) of upcoming Stanford grad Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), are about to take a holiday to visit their little girl…and her new boyfriend. Laird Mayhew (James Franco) is a tattoed man-child who stumbled into wealth with an app production outfit, and he wants to marry Ned Fleming’s daughter.
Throughout the setup of Why Him?, every joke is punctuated or predicated on profanity as opposed to punchlines. Franco’s persona makes for effective moments of cognitive dissonance, but only so much mileage can be had out of such a one-note buffoonish character.
The principle relationship in the film is between the odd man of Franco and the straight man of Cranston. This relationship is fine, both actors play the part exactly as they know how, but it is the oldest comedy pairing in the book. The more effective pairing, though, is the Cato-Clouseau relationship between Franco and Keegan-Michael Key, who plays Laird’s eccentrically loyal assistant.
The narrative thrust of Why Him? is the baseline formula of comedy desperately in need for a new angle. The added element of communication breakdown between generations—the only other angle the film provides—is similarly done-before (better) and based on tired stereotypes.
What works in Why Him? are the occasional one-off gag and the supporting performances. What feels tired is everything else. Leaning on crass jokes for support, the film abandons plot and character for lazy gags that feel disparate and forced.
The best comedies utilize character, either a depth of or a self-aware caricature of, to provide meaningful moments of humor and, at times, heart. Writer-director John Hamburg’s previous film I Love You Man does this character work wonderfully, creating one of the best bromances in cinema.
Why Him? goes for a similar mix of humor and heart, as most comedies do nowadays even when it feels inappropriate. It feels inappropriate here, as well. The characters in the film are essentially non-existent, caricatures that could be described in one word (if any). Still, the film attempts to wrap its narrative up in a heartfelt bow that it does not earn, although it makes an earnest effort to make it feel right.
Here’s an example of where the film falls short in this regard. One pivotal moment revolves around the agency of Stephanie and how everything is about her decision as opposed to the decision of Ned or Laird. But her character has no basis for agency in the narrative. She should have agency, certainly, but her character does genuinely nothing during the entire movie. Describing her character with simple adjectives would be a chore. In this instance, she is merely used as a tool to motivate a plot point.
Why Him? takes two age-old conventions of comic narrative and blends them to tepid results. The entire cast, armed with strong performances, do their best to salvage the film from being a series of hit or miss bits, but it simply is not enough. The effort is shown on-screen, but nothing comes together in the end that would make for a memorable comedy experience.
Why Him?: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)