The cast for the new movie comedy “Why Him?” is led by James Franco and Bryan Cranston, too justly admired actors who are obviously fully committed to this film, based on a story generated by Jonah Hill and a couple of partners. And the idea for the plot opened up all sorts of possibilities for the movie to get laughs out of generational differences.
Director John Hamburg manages to keep the film good-natured, which may not have been easy, given the script. There are almost no jokes. And even the basic story gets confused close to the end.
Cranston plays the owner of a middle-sized printing company in Michigan, now languishing because of competition with online publishing and advertising—not that the screenplay makes the source of the weakness sufficiently clear. Ned, his wife Barb (Megan Mullally), and their young teen son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) fly out to visit daughter and Stanford student Stephanie (Zoey Deutch).
She surprises them by explaining that she wants them to stay in the hidden mansion of her tech millionaire beau, Laird (Franco). Crude, tactless Laird has had the picture from the family’s Christmas card tattooed on his back.
One of the film’s problems is that audiences already know enough about the flakiness of the northern Pacific coast’s internet geeks that nothing Laird does surprises us. His house is “paperless.” He has a pet llama. Some of his employees may live in his large home.
In fact, the writers had so much trouble coming up with anything new to indicate Laird’s eccentricity (to use the polite term) that they fell back on having his African-American security chief Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) launch surprise attacks at him. This is a device made famous in the “Pink Panther” movies, where Kato, Inspector Clouseau’s Asian servant, would launch surprise attacks on him. Ned points this out to Laird and Gustav. They’ve never seen the “Pink Panther” movies.
Opportunities to demonstrate Laird’s flakiness are limited by a couple of other facts. One is that the bulk of the movie is set in and around the house, as if to save money. The other is that movies are essentially visual and active, and geek life is by definition inactive and internal.
Nevertheless, the movie soldiers on. Ned doesn’t take to the goofy Laird, mostly because the internet boy talks bodily functions all the time and curses almost enough to be a character in a Seth Rogan movie. And yet the socially dim-witted Laird wants Ned’s permission to ask Stephanie to marry him.
She is aware that Laird has scared off her father. The film makes attempts to suggest Laird has also frightened Ned by planting wild ideas in the minds of his wife and son. But what really causes the rift, after an animated copulation between a hacker (working for Ned) and a cartoon Laird, is that code tzar buys all the debt in Ned’s failing business.
And here’s where the story’s movements become obscure. If you go to see the movie, watch the uncomfortable way it handles an appearance by two members of the Rock band Kiss. That notquite failure going on as it searches for jokes is a version of the movie’s route writ small.
This is not to say that “Why Him?” is unpleasant or uncomfortable to watch, or that there aren’t details—the Japanese toilet and bidet combo, for example— that seem sort of funny. Cranston brings a lot of intensity to his part (what a surprise). And Franco is likeable almost no matter what.
So if you don’t mind paying extra to go sit in one of the downtown theaters where usher/waiters constantly pass before you, “Why Me?” isn’t the worst movie to see. Of course you could wait a couple of weeks and catch it, uninterrupted, for a couple of bucks out at Seth Childs.