“Why Him?” takes a comic situation and then does everything it can to undermine it. It’s more than unfunny. It’s anti-funny. It doesn’t provoke laughter or even neutral silence, but an increasingly stunned disdain. It is the movie equivalent of putting on a plaster life mask and letting it dry and lock your face into an expression of blank misery.
Still, James Franco can be comically annoying — and comical in his awareness of it — and Bryan Cranston is good at being comically annoyed. There was potential here in the story of a father who meets his daughter’s boyfriend and hates him on sight. But the filmmakers don’t have a clue as to how to exploit that situation. Either that, or they just don’t have the stomach to do it.
The movie takes place over Christmas, so this is this year’s really bad Christmas movie — there usually is one. Cranston plays Ned, a Midwestern businessman with a mid-sized printing business that is beginning to tank, due to the Internet. For the holidays, he and his wife (Megan Mullally) and teenage son go out to Palo Alto to visit their daughter, Stephanie, who is going to college. No sooner are they off the plane than the daughter springs the news that she expects them to stay with her at the boyfriend’s house.
So here we go. It’s father, mother and little brother at the boyfriend’s place. We know going in that the father will find the boyfriend repellent. So what do you think the house is like? Turns out, it’s a multimillion-dollar mansion. The boyfriend (Franco) is a very successful developer of apps, and he’s worth hundreds of millions.
But wait, that’s not bad, is it? Being seriously wealthy — that’s usually regarded as a plus. So maybe something else is wrong with him, like he’s a nasty guy. Or he mistreats his girlfriend. Or he’s burning down the rainforest. But no, none of those things. No, his big faults are that he curses a lot, and he has lots of tattoos. That’s about it. That’s what’s wrong with the boyfriend.
See the problem? What could have been a funny situation, in which a father knows that his daughter is with a horror show but doesn’t know what to do about it, is transformed instead into a series of minor misunderstandings or misperceptions based on superficial cultural differences. At the center of the movie is the father, who is not a comic character, and yet he’s the one that’s obtuse. At one point, he finds out that the boyfriend has marijuana on the premises and warns his daughter that marijuana is the gateway to heroin, and that soon she will be working as a prostitute.
It’s as if director John Hamburg and his co-screenwriters slapped on handcuffs from the beginning, preventing them from portraying the daughter as anything but wise, the boyfriend as anything but ingenuous, and the family as anything but nice. The only avenue left was for the father to be a stick in the mud, like the dimwitted dads in TV commercials, but an impotent stick-in-the-mud isn’t funny. He’s just a tangle of thwarted frustration and self-doubt. Imagine “All in the Family” with the power arrangement reversed, with Archie Bunker living in his son-in-law’s house.
So having tossed away every possible laugh they might have achieved through the setup, the filmmakers have nothing left but to be crude. Thus, we get the colossally unfunny sequence, in which Dad sits on a Japanese toilet bowl in the boyfriend’s house, unable to operate the self-cleansing mechanism. Enter help, in the form of the boyfriend’s assistant (Keegan-Michael Key), who announces, “I see nothing. I smell nothing.” Really? Because everyone in the audience feels like they’re seeing everything and smelling everything just by sitting there.
What was Bryan Cranston thinking? Just one phone call to Jeff Daniels might have told him that audiences really don’t want to be picturing that kind of thing when they look at an actor. And at least in Daniels’ case, the scene — in “Dumb and Dumber” — was really funny.