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Review: ‘Why Him?’ Is No Christmas Classic, But At Least James Franco Packs a Sack Full of Laughs

Unfolding like a half-hearted remake of "Meet the Parents" for the Judd Apatow generation, this battle between James Franco and Bryan Cranston makes for a fitfully funny stalemate.

James Franco and Bryan Cranston in Why Him?

“Why Him?”

I believe it was the great Anton Chekhov who said that “If you show in the first act a glass cube encasing a dead moose that’s been entombed in its own urine, in the third act it simply must explode all over James Franco, with the stuffed creature’s testicles landing in the mouth of a hapless supporting character.” An insightful and unusually prescient guy, that Chekhov, even if he never wrote anything quite as pungent as John Hamburg’s “Why Him?”

A dumb, gross, and sometimes hilarious holiday movie that exists at the nexus between the cringe comedies of Ben Stiller and the bromantic opuses of Judd Apatow, “Why Him?” painlessly marries the formulaic body horror of “Meet the Parents” to the improv-driven, reference-heavy sweetness of “Knocked Up.” It’s not as memorable as the former nor as smart (or sincere) as the latter, but — and this is important — it’s also not “Office Christmas Party,” so let’s not be too dismissive.

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Directed by John Hamburg (“Along Came Polly”) from a story he conceived with Jonah Hill and Ian Helfer, this endless but eminently tolerable chunk of holiday cheer begins — as all Christmas classics do — with James Franco screaming the titles of Netflix shows while threatening to show the world his penis. Tapping into the same goofy guilelessness that made him so much fun to watch in films like “Pineapple Express,” the inexhaustible actor plays idiot tech zillionaire Laird Mayhew, and he’s introduced while on a Skype chat with his blandly adorable girlfriend, Stephanie (“Everybody Wants Some!!” breakout Zoey Deutch, adding a crucial spark to an underwritten role).

Meanwhile, a thousand miles east of Silicon Valley, Stephanie’s dad is on the verge of a crisis. A decidedly analog guy in an increasingly digital world, Ned “Big Cheese” Fleming (Bryan Cranston thanklessly serving in the Robert De Niro role) is struggling to keep his paper company from going under. When he, his wife (Megan Mullally), and their wide-eyed teenage son (Griffin Gluck) fly out to California to spend the holidays with Stephanie and her mysterious beau, Ned isn’t only confronted with every father’s worst fear, but also the realities of doing business in the 21st century. Every parent feels somewhat replaced when their oldest kid partners off, and “Why Him?” compounds that threat with the existential fear of being left behind by the times.

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It’s impressive that the movie has time to engage on both fronts considering that Laird is such an all-consuming horror show. For one thing, he’s real dumb. And not just regular dumb, but like gets Ned’s holiday card tattooed on his back in the hopes of making a good first impression dumb. He’s movie dumb.

Franco, for what it’s worth, completely owns this unfiltered register — he’s great at layering an impossible degree of stupidity beneath a puppy dog innocence, and while it’s never remotely believable that Stephanie would want to spend the rest of her life with a human cartoon like Laird, “Why Him?” isn’t dumb enough to forget that. Laird is Ned’s living nightmare, and he’s brought to life with nightmare logic. From the ridiculously stupid art that he’s mounted around his house (the standout pieces being the aforementioned moose installation and a painting called “Humping Capybaras,” which more than lives up to its title) to the German manservant who teaches Laird self-defense by ambushing him at all hours of the day (a very funny Keegan-Michael Key), the start-up scion is a cohesive character, so far as these things go.

Crucially, he’s also kind to the core. While the film flirts with the idea that Laird and Ned are competing to see who knows Stephanie better, Laird is just so desperate for Ned’s approval that the animus there is totally one-sided. There are no villains here, no dark surprises, no contrived “Ko Samui” misunderstandings. Just a lot of unconscionably extended set pieces about Japanese toilets, the tech industry, and an artificial intelligence system voiced by Kaley Cuoco.

Alas, there isn’t a single sequence in this movie that doesn’t run about 150% too long, and the gags are too situational to offer the cast the room necessary to riff for that amount of time (particularly when so many of the jokes don’t really land in the first place). The hit rate gets better as the film lumbers along and the scenarios grow more extreme, but it takes a certain degree of perseverance to roll with this thing until it pays off.

Still, we may soon yearn for comedies this frivolous and banal, this aggressively disconnected from anything that matters. Like going home for the holidays, “Why Him?” may not be the most enjoyable thing you do all year, but — like going home for the holidays — it’s adequately refreshing for anyone willing to sacrifice a little finesse for the warmth of familiarity. Just try not to stand near that moose thing if you can help it.

Grade: C+

“Why Him?” opens in theaters on December 23rd.

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