The comedy landscape has changed immensely since WHY HIM? writer/director John Hamburg co-scripted Meet the Parents 16 years ago. Thanks largely to the repertory posse that surrounds James Franco, improvisational stoner comedy is a distinct genre for better or worse. With the latest addition to Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Films canon, those two worlds collide with uneven results.
Reversing the premise of the 2000 comedy hit, doting father and struggling print salesman Ned (Bryan Cranston) visits his eldest daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) in California to meet her new boyfriend Laird (Franco). Laird turns out to be rich and vulgarity prone, with Ned taking an instant dislike of him. However, as Laird’s enthusiastic attitude wins over Ned’s wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and son Scott (Griffin Gluck), Ned must decide how he feels about Laird as a future son-in-law.
WHY HIM? doesn’t lose points so much for originality as it does for execution. The formulaic setup is expected for the genre, but once we are in Laird’s home the film simply becomes a series of inconsequential set-pieces. Some of these are familiar improvisational riffs, while others appear to have been lifted entirely from a bygone era of gags, such as a Japanese toilet joke that hasn’t been funny since the 1980s. These jokes extend well beyond their used-by date, with the aforementioned washlet piece – in which Cranston attempts to wash his anus with the aid of a heavily accented Keegan-Michael Key – feeling like it goes on for 10 minutes.
Regularly rubbing salt into the comedic wound, these bits are repeated frequently, not only returning to the literal toilet humour, but also including a running gag about bukakke. It’s disappointing from the excellent cast at work too. Cranston and Franco are effortless, but given too much rope. Mullally gives it her all, but ends up crafting her own film inside the movie. On the other hand, the usually reliable Key borders on The Love Guru levels of terrible as a vaguely European accented (“I am on the needles and pins”) estate manager.
Which is not to say that WHY HIM? is devoid of laughs, and it certainly picks up steam as it goes along for an emotionally satisfying conclusion and a rock ‘n’ roll cameo. Yet the ‘everything is permitted’ approach of improv is a double-edged sword, simultaneously resulting in some genuinely disarming laughs but also lacking a sense of direction. You could go see this as a Christmas film, but you may find yourself asking “why me?”