Some movie genres are doomed. Not doomed in the sense that they’re going away anytime soon, but doomed in the sense that very few good movies come from them. The comedy sub-genre of “normal person meets crazy in-law(s), hi-jinks ensue” is one of those. With roots stretching back to 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the genre hit its high point early on, and has been on a steady decline ever since. Why Him? isn’t going to drastically alter that downward spiral, but it works within those low expectations to deliver a comedy that unexpectedly, due to a tight script and great cast, kinda works.
Why Him? stars Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally as Ned and Barb Flemming, two parents visiting their daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) to meet her new boyfriend, Laird (James Franco), over the holidays. To their surprise and horror, they learn that he’s an eccentric tech billionaire. They’re joined by Laird’s assistant Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) and their fifteen year-old son, Scotty (Griffin Gluck). Cedric the Entertainer also plays a small supporting role as Ned’s best friend, and office confidant. Why Him? requires little explanation: the parents meet the boyfriend, they don’t approve, hi-jinks ensue. You can guess where it goes from there. But luckily, Why Him? succeeds more often than not by recognizing simple genre pitfalls and avoiding them.
“Stop talking and eat your paper.”
Why Him? almost completely avoids the ‘stick-in-the-mud’ cliche. That is, a main ‘normal’ character who needs to loosen up and is unwilling to have fun. Cranston, a comedy veteran, is almost never that character, despite every indication that he will be. While he’s opposed to Laird dating (and marrying) his daughter, he never slows down the action to object to the proceedings. He’s an active protagonist, and part of the fun. When Laird proposes that they steal a Christmas tree, there’s no long objection or angsty, comedic suffering—the next scene starts with them just doing it. And the movie is filled with fun moments like this, where characters are allowed to breathe and act organically, instead of adhering to artificial roles. This allows for genuine moments between actors on screen, and when Franco and Cranston share some of those moments together, the film is truly at its best.
The rest of the cast, for the most part, are wonderful. Mullally tackles the script with gusto, taking every moment to add new layers to Barb without ever betraying the core of her character. Keegan-Michael Key is similarly outstanding as the Alfred to Laird’s Batman, providing everything from sage advice to surprise combat training. The most surprising cast member, however, is Griffin Gluck as fifteen year old Scotty. His character, and performance, are entirely earnest. He’s not a young man playing a child, nor is he a child playing someone much more mature. His performance, line delivery, and body language are exactly what you’d expect from a fifteen year old in his position. While he’s not the funniest character in the movie, he’s so shockingly believable and naturally awkward that it’s unclear if he was acting in some scenes at all.
“You need an erection to buy a Christmas tree?”
Unfortunately, Why Him? has one character that just doesn’t work. This will probably be the most cynical criticism of the movie I can muster, but one of the biggest problems I had while watching Why Him? was the simple question: why her? Zoey Deutch’s Stephanie is linoleum-tile bland; she’s sterile to the point of tragedy. It feels at times like the filmmakers were worried that giving her a personality might scare the audience away, and Deutch is left trying to breathe life into a cardboard cut-out. The film assures us that she’s really, no really, super great, but it doesn’t come across in her character. The lingering question isn’t why anyone would choose a young tech billionaire who looks like James Franco (who freakin’ wouldn’t?), but why would THAT person choose HER. This comes down to Stephanie being an underwritten character, but it’s a deep disparity that’s never adequately addressed. At least they look good together.
Despite being a Christmas movie, Why Him? is not overly beholden to the time of year it takes place. The main story, and subsequent action, could have happened at any time of the year. The holiday season was just the vehicle that the filmmakers chose to get us where we need to be. But it wasn’t the only option, and isn’t the reason you’ll want to see this movie. To be frank, Why Him? is about the holidays just as much as Die Hard is. This turns out to be a good thing, however, as the movie focuses more on plot and character than the adherence to and subversion of generic holiday tradition. While this means that Why Him? probably won’t end up in most Christmas collections, it also means that it’s free to enter the cultural landscape as a comedy first, and holiday movie second.
“I’m in love with your daughter, dudes.”
But despite all it does right, Why Him? is still the same movie you’ve seen a dozen times before, and offers little in the way of new laughs or inventive subject matter. It’s a new spin on an old formula, but nothing’s really changed but the wrapper. We’ll see this movie again before too long, and while it may be faint praise, it’s nice that this more recent iteration is not as bad as it could’ve been. You’ll laugh more than you expect to, and enjoy the journey regardless of knowing the destination. Why Him? is not a classic, but it’s also not a complete waste. You can definitely do worse this holiday season.
My Rating: 6.5/10