to be mined from the quickly growing gulf between our parents’ generation and our own, between those who don’t own a single iPad in their home, and those who upgrade with each new version. We’ve seen quite a bit of comedies try and capitalize on that topic to varying degrees of success over the years, and while the film’s shockingly laughless trailers make Why Him? out to be yet another missed attempt, you may be surprised to find a consistently funny holiday outing when you actually sit down to watch it.
Directed by John Hamburg, from a script by he and Ian Helfer, the film follows Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston) and his family when they journey out from their Michigan hometown for a Christmas visit to see their daughter, Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), and her mysterious boyfriend, Laird Mayhew (James Franco), in California. What starts out as a typical family vacation, however, devolves into a bitter rivalry between Laird and Ned, who is appalled by the former’s constant cursing, numerous tattoos, and hipster, New Age lifestyle, and who refuses to give his blessing when Laird asks to marry Stephanie.
That’s the basic premise of Why Him?, which is predictably, shockingly similar to that of other in-law comedies like Meet the Parents, but it’s all of the other running jokes and visual motifs that Why Him? brings to the table that makes it successful.
Both Cranston and Franco do their jobs well as Ned and Laird, respectively, with Cranston leaning heavily into his character’s conservative values, and Franco fully embracing Laird’s relaxed and carefree attitude. Cranston inarguably gets more laughs throughout the film than Franco, including one specific sequence with Ned and a bidet that works purely because of Cranston’s exaggerated facial expressions, and that of Keegan-Michael Key’s Gustav, Laird’s estate manager.
For a film seemingly all about him, it may seem troublesome to say that Laird is probably the least funny character in the film, but Why Him? shines more because of its strong supporting performances than either Cranston or Franco’s characters. For instance, the previously mentioned Key proves once again how strong of an on-screen presence he can be, and his Gustav elicits a lot of the film’s biggest laughs, as the camera often cuts away to show us Gustav’s running commentary and reactions to a number of the “bonding” sessions between Laird and Stephanie’s family.
Megan Mullally also emerges as one of the film’s standouts, playing Ned’s wife, Barb, whose reactions to Laird’s never-ending sexual compliments and frankness elevates even some of the film’s more lackluster sequences. Hamburg knows what kind of comedic powerhouses both she and Key are, often inserting them into the film’s more exposition-heavy scenes to help keep things moving along quickly. Even when it drags, which it does from time-to-time, both actors seem poised and ready to come out of nowhere and hit you with another laugh.
Like with his last feature film, I Love You, Man, Hamburg takes the time to create a strong foundation for everything that happens in Why Him?, connecting even some of the film’s zanier comedic moments back to its relatable premise and characters. He gives the film an unexpected level of heart and emotion, thanks mostly to the scenes between Cranston’s Ned and Deutch’s Stephanie, that helps to underscore things well when the conflict between Ned and Laird begins to climb to some ridiculous heights.
None of the laughs or set-pieces in the film are particularly new or inventive, but they work because of the performances of the actors, the wit of the material they’re given, and the believable relationships established between each of the characters. Even the relationship between Laird and Gustav, which Ned accurately compares to that of The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau and Cato, proves to be sweeter and more palpable than most other films may have given it the chance to be.
Why Him? doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any means, or show you anything you haven’t necessarily seen before, but in a month packed to the brim with major awards contenders and blockbuster films, it offers a refreshing and legitimately funny change of pace to everything else that’s out there right now. It’s been seven years since Hamburg’s last film, but hopefully we won’t have to wait nearly as long for his next.
Why Him? plays on many of the obvious jokes of other in-law comedies, but thanks to strong supporting performances from Keegan Michael-Key, Megan Mullally, and Zoey Deutch, and the film’s acute observations about its two lead characters, it stands out as one of this year’s stronger comedies.