You often hear screenwriters talk about the “idea” of their screenplay. Not the situation, the characters, or the plot: The deeper theme, some elemental conflict motivating all of the above. This is because screenwriters are smart people, and because we all need something to believe in. But the Hollywood hard-R comedy has never felt so shallow. Every title is an elevator pitch: Bad Moms, Dirty Grandpa, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. Once you get the concept, you can fill in the blanks. There will be celebrity cameos; there will be overqualified TV comedians improvising their way through supporting roles; there will be gross-out humor about private parts gone public; in the end, there will be hugs.
So credit Why Him? for an unusual virtue: It gives good subtext. Bryan Cranston plays Ned Fleming, 55 years old and a paragon of 55-year-old American ideals. He runs a paper company in Michigan. Anyone who watched The Office knows “paper company” is a synonym for “dying business.” Ned’s got problems. He’s losing business to China and online banner ads. The company’s deep in debt, mere months from bankruptcy. He’s grooming his teen son (Griffin Gluck) to take over the family business, but it’s clear Ned’s trapped in a distant past. (He uses an Earthlink account.)
Detroit has popped up in big blockbusters the last few years, almost always playing somewhere else. It was Gotham and Metropolis in Batman v Superman; it was China in Trans4mers. In Why Him? the Rust Belt setting serves a real purpose. Ned has done everything right: His employees love him, his peers respect him, he’s paying for his daughter’s Stanford education. He used to be a car salesman, selling Datsuns. What, some millennial asks him, is a Datsun? Something, Ned says, that “doesn’t exist anymore.” It’s a throwaway line, but Cranston gives it layers. Will his company exist anymore? Will he?
And so, the film’s conceit: Send this man to Silicon Valley, out of the past and into the future! Ned’s family flies out to Palo Alto to spend Christmas with their daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) and her mysterious new boyfriend. He is Laird Mayhew, and he is James Franco, or whichever secret James Franco clone shoots big studio comedies while his lookalike duplicates make TV shows and Faulkner movies. Laird has a big modernist house that’s also a trendy office, a modern art gallery, and a zoo. He’s been coding since he was 13, and he invented Guerilla Gang, a nonspecifically popular videogame where gorillas are guerillas.
The movie’s joke is easy, but it’s still clever. Laird is a maniac, half-punk and half-hippie, prone to f-bombs and impulse-buy back tattoos. Ned should hate Laird because he’s a bad influence. But modern society calls Laird a genius and puts him on magazine covers. He’s an entrepreneur; he’s pals with Elon Musk; he met Stephanie when Stanford invited him to speak. And by golly, he’s rich. For dinner, he hires “the cute one from Top Chef” to create a one-night-only Fleming-themed pop-up restaurant. He builds Ned bespoke bowling lanes. He has a smarthouse A.I. voiced by Kaley Cuoco, though my fan theory is that he actually just trapped Cuoco in his walls. He throws a party and invites his entrepreneur friends, including the brother-sister tycoons (Andrew Rannells and Casey Wilson) who run the digital company putting analog Ned out of business. Director John Hamburg co-wrote the Meet the Parents trilogy; consider this Meet the Disruptors.
Ned is skeptical, or just frustrated. “Most of these internet companies,” he huffs, “are built on smoke and mirrors.” The film’s title is supposed to reflect the mood of a desperate father – “Why did my daughter choose this guy?” But it’s also a stealth missile of social anguish: “Why did everyone choose this guy?”
It all works in theory. But the execution’s off. Megan Mullally makes a fine foil for Cranston as his wife, Barb, but besides a raucous seduction scene, the film doesn’t give her much to do. That’s also true of Zoey Deutch, given a doubly thankless girlfriend-daughter role. In the Teri Polo part, Deutch somehow has less to do than Teri Polo. And where the original Meet the Parents was a slow burn of comedic tension, Why Him? goes full-blown absurd from the moment the Flemings walk into Laird’s house. The film wants to be a comedy of excess, but it just feels excessive. Laird’s got an estate manager with a foreign-man accent (Keegan-Michael Key, trying.) He’s got a dead moose suspended in its own urine. You want toilet jokes? You got them. Dozens!
But the film’s biggest disappointment is the main pairing. Cranston can make you laugh with a mouth twitch, and Franco is fully invested in Laird’s Zuckerberg-meets-Kanye act. They should make an ideal oppositional odd couple: Ned in his flannel shirt and khaki cords, Laird in his tank-top and drop-crotch yoga pants. But Why Him? can’t invest in their differences: It’s too focused on the idea that, deep down, they’re the same. “You and I have so much in common,” Laird tells Ned. And Stephanie announces that she loves her boyfriend because her boyfriend’s so much like her father. (The fact that Deutch gets out of that scene with any dignity intact makes me think she’s a few years from a few Oscars.)
Like a lot of R-rated comedies, Why Him? lands on the most G-rated ideals. All family problems and economic struggles can be overcome: After all, it is Christmas. But Why Him? has no fun along the way its central conflict. It’s built on smoke and mirrors. Moose urine, too. C