Oh Bryan Cranston, how far the mighty can fall. The four-time Emmy winning actor and Academy Award nominee rose to stardom putting the meth in method acting as high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White. But Cranston was not always the one who knocks. Many will remember his stretch as the goofy Hal on 2000s sitcom Malcom in the Middle. Here Cranston was the antithesis of the mean-mugging Heisenberg as an indecisive and immature father figure. He was the Stevia to Mr. White’s ricin; proof in the pudding that Cranston can wear many hats (even if the wool pork pie fedora still fits best.) With his latest comedic endeavor, the mind-numbing Why Him?, some might say that Cranston has returned to his roots. Not that that’s a good thing.
Anyone who’s seen the BBC’s Cuckoo starring Andy Sandberg and Greg Davies (the first season, not the other significantly less funny Sandberg-less follow-ups) will recognize the premise of Why Him? immediately. The story from director John Hamburg (I Love You Man, Along Came Polly), writer Ian Helfer (no credits worth mentioning) and Jonah Hill (hmmm??) couldn’t be a more shameless premise hijacking from the infinitely superior Cuckoo. Like EDM, the beats are basically identical.
Both begin when a scholarly daughter, in this case Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), introduces her socially conservative family to their new, eccentric love interest. It doesn’t go well. In Cuckoo’s case, they’re already married and the free-loving beau is broke. Here, they’re not quite married but he’s hot to propose, and he’s a billionaire. Cuz this is America.
James Franco, taking on the role of the cloyingly over-the-top and heavy-cursing Laird Mayhem, has two speeds: being vulgar and being dumb. The kind of dunce that would have the Christmas card of a family he’s never met tattooed across his back, complete with the “Happy Holidays” portion. That we’re to believe he built a hundred million dollar empire by coding an app (something about armed Gorillas riding hoverboards) is as dumb as the character is, well, dumb.
Standing in stark opposite to Laird is Cranston, playing the straight-laced paper industry business man Ned “Big Cheese” Fleming. When Stephanie invites her family, including her mom (a scene-stealing Megan Mullally) and little brother Scotty (Griffin Gluck) to share Christmas at Laird’s layer, Ned, sensing the potential for a familial rift were he to decline, agrees hesitantly. Adored by his friends and family, the modest Ned is immediately thrown by Laird’s opulent abode, a modern fortress which Scotty compares to “an Apple store.”
Hamburg wastes time tracing the absurdities of Laird’s mansion, from the moose suspended in its own urine to various finger-paintings of animals in coital embraces, the sight gags work best if you’ve not yet hit puberty. Those not already familiar with the shock and awe aspirations of Why Him?’s comedic style may find it shocking how much time Hamburg invests on a recurring bidet joke. A gag I assume may only prove funny to those who’ve never heard of a bidet. It sprays your butthole, gettit??!
The great Keegan-Michael Key is not-so-hot appearing as a vaguely racist butler; the ethnic-faced Alfred to Laird’s shameless Bruce Wanye. There’s also Kaley Cuoco voicing a Siri-like robotic personal assistant who, you’ll never guess, swears a lot! Cuz what’s funnier than a disembodied voice saying “motherfucker!” But both are far superior to what must be one of the worst cameos put to film, which appear in what seems like the last minute but then stay on for what seems an endless stretch of unamusing minutes. Whoever edited this thing needs to be fired.
Perhaps the only redeeming feature of Why Him? is its cast. Cranston and Franco commit to the respective frustration and absurdity of their characters with the gusto of performers trying their damnedest to pull weak material. They share some appropriately outrageous moments together and the combination of Ned’s unceasing hatred of Laird and Laird’s incessant plays for his approval allows some worthwhile interplay between the performers. But as the film moves into its last act, sentimentality takes the place of comedy and even the occasional chuckle is replaced by an overlong series of familial reconciliations you knew would come the moment the movie started.
CONCLUSION: Frequently unfunny, offensively unoriginal and downright grating, this teaming of great character actor Bryan Cranston and can-do-it-all performer James Franco breaks a different kind of bad, scrubbing free the charm of both actors, dragging the audience down an bottomless pit of bawdy comedy that, like Laird’s bidet, misses far more often than it hits.