Cranston And Franco Make Spotty "Why Him?" Worth The Trip

In a calendar year brimming with wretched studio comedies, slapdash “Meet The Parents” clone “Why Him?” at least has the decency to be funny – sometimes very funny. And it’s not like producer Ben Stiller and writer-director John Hamburg are stealing from anyone but themselves. It’s a happy accident that the movie ends up the their best “Meet The Parents” sequel (admittedly not a mean feat), dotted with a handful of broadly hilarious scenes that escalate from chuckle-worthy to sidesplitting. More importantly, stars Bryan Cranston (“Trumbo”) and James Franco (“The Interview”) are given ample room to flex their considerable comedic muscles.

Michigander Ned Fleming (Cranston) is going through a rough patch. He’s turning 55, his paper company is secretly in the toilet, and his college-aged baby girl Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) has just unwittingly sprung unexpected news on him – she has a serious boyfriend. With wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) in tow, Ned heads off to California to meet Stephanie’s squeeze, game face squarely on.

Much to the Flemings’ surprise, said beau is thirty-something billionaire-slash-lunatic Laird Mayhew (Franco) who resides in a wooded, high-tech compound paid for in app money and flanked by gold gorilla statues (his app is an action game called “Guerrilla Gang”). Laird, intent on asking for Ned’s permission to propose to Stephanie, is the kind of kook who hires celebrity chefs to serve his guests bear meat on edible newspaper just because he can. But the character as written isn’t much more than a construct of decades of archetypal movie eccentrics. It’s Franco who gives him life, who lends so much verve to every single f-bomb and so much gusto to every impromptu wrestling match and parkour session with assistant Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key).

Cranston is similarly transcendent as Ned, meaning he bests the words on the page and then some. There are moments in “Why Him?” in which Cranston is so much better than what the material calls for or deserves that his ability as an actor becomes funny in itself. Take, for example, an especially stupid scene between Ned and Gustav and a fancy Japanese toilet. It’s little more than an extended poop joke, but Cranston commits to it more than any other actor has ever committed to anything, and the results are nearly pee-your-pants funny.

In fact, some of the picture’s sloppiest, most undisciplined sequences are its funniest, like nearly all of Gustav’s appearances (Key is as amusing as ever) and a computer hacking subplot featuring one of Ned’s employees (Zack Pearlman) who’s obsessed with Stephanie. Thusly, there’s probably a leaner, less funny version of the movie out there somewhere. It’s too bad that the best of both worlds was seemingly lost in the writing process.

The bigger issue is that between Cranston’s grimacing and Franco’s flailing, the female characters – one of whom should be the driving force of the story – are largely lost in the fray. Mullally gets one hysterical scene but Deutch gets none, a ridiculous conceit for a story-thin comedy that runs nearly two hours long. At least her character has the sense to eventually scold both of the men in her life for their uncouth behavior. It just takes an unannounced suburban helicopter landing to get there.

Nevertheless, Cranston and Franco bring enough comedic firepower that a bloated running time and patchy screenplay are nuisances rather than deal-breakers, and the picture ends up pulling off one of the rarest comedy feats of all: it gets funnier as it goes along. It’s not John Hamburg’s funniest movie (shout-out to “I Love You, Man”) and the leads’ considerable chemistry might beg for a reunion in a better movie, but “Why Him?” makes do. No clownin’.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: December 23, 2016
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: John Hamburg
Screenwriter: John Hamburg, Ian Helfer
Starring: Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Megan Mullally, Zoey Deutch, Griffin Gluck, Keegan-Michael Key
MPAA Rating: R (for strong language and sexual material throughout)