Why Him? is perhaps a little over-stretched.
Why Him? is built around a very stock comedy template. A hard-working old-fashioned father finds himself at odds with his daughter’s new boyfriend, leading to a clash of competing masculine egos. The most innovative aspect of Why Him? is the decision to filter this standard comedy plot through two more filters. Why Him? is simultaneously a raunchy R-rated comedy full of profanity and bodily-function jokes. It is also framed as a Christmas comedy, as much as a comedy set in and around Los Angeles can seem like a Christmas comedy.
These are hardly the boldest of innovations. Why Him? is a paper-thin comedy that is somehow stretched out to run over one hour and fifty minutes. There are any number of gags that work and a solid cast that never rises to exceptional, but the fact is that all of these elements overstay their welcome by at least a good twenty minutes. It is telling that one of the biggest issues with Why Him? is repetition, where the movie attempts to spin out slight jokes that prompt a knowing smile into running gags that exhaust all good will.
Ironically enough, given the title, Why Him? never makes a compelling case for its own scale and length.
Why Him? is basically a collection of standard comedy elements tied together and loosely structured into a narrative. The film opens with its lead character celebrating his fifty-fifth birthday. Ned is a heard-working man who runs his own printing business that is struggling to stay afloat in the paperless era. Through an ill-timed birthday Skype, he is introduced to his daughter’s new boyfriend – Stephanie’s first long-term romance. The entire birthday party is treated to a view of his “crack”, complete with inadvertent screenshotting and exaggerated overreaction.
The opening scene sets the tone for the film to come. There a lot of pop culture references, as Laird uses the invitation to “Netflix and chill” as an excuse to fashion Netflix shows into cheesy innuendos. Frequently, these pop culture references are undisguised, often serving as simple references to familiar concepts like “the Iron Throne” or an appearance from Elon Musk or the band Kiss. More than that, the film offers the tamest “edge” imaginable as it tries to justify its R-rating without ever seeming particularly bold or transgressive.
For an R-rated comedy, Why Him? feels surprisingly traditional. The rating serves as an excuse for some swear words and some sexual references, rather than for anything particularly rowdy. There are repeated references to the fact that Laird and Stephanie have sex, for example. While this is understandably upsetting to Ned, it is hardly provocative or startling. There is very little shocking about the repeated use of foul language or the candour with which Laird acknowledges his activities with Stephanie.
Rather than feeling like a core aspect of the film, the more raunchy and ridiculous moments feel grafted in. They have a superfluous sensibility, as if they were only added so that Why Him? might earn a little more credibility and as if they could all be excised from the film without leaving too obvious a trace. For all that Why Him? pushes itself as an R-rated comedy, it feels very much like the “R-rated cut” of a broader comedy that is released as a sales gimmick on DVD and blu ray. There is an obligatory and half-hearted aspect to these gags.
A tighter edit of Why Him? might have resulted in a stronger film. There are points at which it seems like the cast have just gone free-wheeling in terms of improvisation and ad-libbing, bouncing references and non-sequiturs off one another for extended scenes. Some of the cast are better at this sort of dialogue than others, with James Franco struggling a little bit while Keegan-Michael Key acquits himself very well. There are several exchanges between James Franco and Griffin Gluck that just go on too long, referencing little but boobs and Game of Thrones.
Similarly, the movie has a number of issues with repeating the same jokes over and over to fill the runtime. Laird is a Silicon Valley executive, and so most of the conflict between Ned and Laird is framed in those terms; young versus old, traditional versus eccentric. However, Why Him? returns to the same gags over and over. The first time Why Him? cracks a joke about Laird’s strange diet, it is reasonably funny. By the time the film reaches “squirts” of “Kobe Beef Sliders”, it is at least the third iteration of the same basic joke.
The same is true of jokes about Laird’s complete disconnect from anything older than he is. An early discussion with Ned about how one of the movie’s jokes has been stolen from The Pink Panther is quite clever, because it ties into the question of whether stealing an old gag is really a crime if the audience is too young to recognise it and because it demonstrates the values dissonances that exist between classic and contemporary entertainment. However, Laird’s inability to recognise clichés like “whatever doesn’t kill you…” and “that’s life…” goes on far too long.
It does not help matters that neither Ned nor Laird is compelling enough to support a movie of this length. Ned is framed so that he is entirely in the wrong, reacting to Laird with panic and terror that actually seems quite justified in context. Laird is portrayed as childish and naive, his biggest character flaw being that he has “no filter.” In fact, the movie repeatedly glosses over anything that would make Laird more complex. “You literally have no capacity for dishonesty,” Ned states at one point, despite the fact that Laird lies several times over the course of the film.
Bryan Cranston and James Franco do the best that they can with the material provided, but the truth is simply that neither Ned nor Laird are interesting enough people to carry one-hundred-and-ten minutes of entertainment. The most interesting characters and the best performances are buried deeper within the film, and never unearthed. Keegan-Michael Key makes an impression as Laird’s assistant Gustav, even if the character is something akin to the movie’s Swiss army knife. Megan Mullally is great as Ned’s wife Barb, but only gets one scene to really shine.
However, perhaps the most interesting of the film’s missed opportunities is the character of Stephanie, as played by Zoey Deutch. Why Him? is the latest in a long line of comedies in which a female lead is denied agency in service of an egotistical contest between two male characters; it just so happens that Stephanie is trapped between her father and her lover, rather than between two suitors. Stephanie is characterised broadly and given minimal development beyond her father’s aspirations for her and her boyfriend’s abiding love for her.
Why Him? is smart enough to appreciate how tired this formula has become. The closing scenes make a convincing case that Stephanie should be the centre of this narrative, and that both Ned and Laird are of secondary importance. Why Him? even offers Stephanie the only agency that it can, acknowledging the uncomfortable subtext of two male leads fighting for the love of a woman who remains detached from it all. The problem is that this gesture comes too late in the film. After everything leading to this point, it feels like much too little.
That is perhaps the greatest irony of Why Him? For a film with such an extended runtime, it ultimately makes little lasting impression.