5 out of 10
Bryan Cranston as Ned Fleming
Directed by John Hamburg
Why Him? Review:
It’s long been said that there are only three to five different stories waiting to be told, everything else is just a re-arrangement of the details. In the world of studio filmmaking, that number is probably a bit lower; experimentation is an inherently risky business and studios are not in the business of risk. In a lot of cases that’s not a deal breaker; many genres and forms can survive simply shuffling permutations as surprise is not always a major part of their draw. Cliché and nostalgia have power because they repeat recognizable and comfortable rhythms; it’s a feature, not a bug. None of that is true for comedy.
Comedy needs surprise in order to innovate but surprise is not something studios are particularly adept pursuing. Thus, from the writer of all the Meet the Parents films, we have yet another film about a disapproving father trying to understand the man his daughter is about to marry.
In this cause, earnest Midwestern small business owner Ned (Cranston) is suddenly brought face to face with the epitome of Coastal liberal elitism in the form of tech millionaire Laird (Franco) who wants to marry his daughter. Though Laird is desperate for Ned’s approval, he is impulsive, filterless and over the top, none of which sits well with the conservative Ned, particularly once his other family members start to warm to Laird’s lifestyle.
It should come as no surprise that a film from the writer of Meet the Parents leans a lot of the same humor that film did. The big idea has been role reversal, putting the audience in the POV of stalwart father Ned who must deal with his little girl being involved with a man of such polar opposites to himself and his idea of her.
It’s not a bad idea in and of itself and there is room in there for some exploration of the cultural divide between the Rust Belt states and liberal coasts – particularly considering that’s where ALL of Why Him?’s attempts at humor come from. But that would take some effort and Why Him? is much more content to coast on easy set ups and deliveries lacking in surprise. If a character mentions to an impulse-lacking millionaire that they’re a big KISS fan or continually brings up a dead moose suspended in its own urine, it becomes quickly clear that KISS will show up at some point and someone will go into that urine.
There’s no surprise, the essence to a good joke, just a question of how far the filmmakers will go and how long will they leave it on screen. Which is frequently too long. There is a bit with a remote-control toilet which is nowhere near as funny as the filmmakers seem to think it is and based on screen time they seem to think it’s hilarious.
It’s not completely devoid of laughs. Homburg actually does have a couple of secret weapons on hand. Or rather one in the form of Keeagan-Michael Key’s Gustav, Laird’s Man Friday who both works as his major domo and attempts to turn him into a person who can function in society. Frequently with surprise attacks in order to keep his reflexes sharp. Gustav is both grounded and wacky enough, and Key’s delivery is pitch-perfect enough, to create the mixture of absurdity and warmth Homburg is going for. Almost every laugh Why Him? manages comes from Key to the point where seeing him inserted into scenes he doesn’t have any purpose in becomes a blessing and not a curse, even if it does reveal the lack of laughs coming from anyone else.
It’s not that there’s no creativity on screen or even a lack of laughs. It’s just that there’s not much and what there is comes from the people at the margin who are not what the film is about. The film is primarily about Ned reacting to what is around him, but Ned by definition is boring which means spending a lot of time around Ned is kind of boring.
Which is unfortunate given Cranston’s comedic skills, but he is equally adept at playing the straight man. The straight man needs someone particularly funny to be put up against in order to be useful and Laird is not that person. He’s a one-note personality (he basically curses and ignores what people tell him) who quickly gets tiring and is constantly upstaged by Gustav.
Trope heavy, lacking in imagination and leaning a lot on more skilled comedians, Why Him? seems like proof that Hamburg may have run out of ideas.