If you’re a James Franco completist (and honestly, who amongst us isn’t?), then you know this can be a tiring occupation at times. In 2016 alone, the man acted in some capacity (either as a lead or some measure of cameo) in 10 films and TV series; he also occasionally directs and quite often produces projects as well, so keeping up with his work can be challenging. Most of what he appears in are small-budget indie works, but sometimes he dives headfirst into the mainstream as he did with his TV series “11.22.63,” his voice work in the animated Sausage Party, or his latest effort, the broad comedy Why Him? What’s fun about following Franco’s cinematic whims is that you get a decent-sized sampling of movies of all shapes and sizes, some of which are actually pretty good. Why Him? is not one of the good ones, however.
With a co-story credit from Jonah Hill and screenwriters John Hamburg (who also directed) and Ian Helfer, Why Him? concerns Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston), the owner of a Michigan-based printing company that is in danger of shutting down due to the internet (e-vites are the business’s key source of ruin). As the holidays approach, Ned is doing what he can to keep things afloat when he gets a note from his daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), who wants her parents (including mom Barb, played by Megan Mullally) to join her in California to have Christmas with boyfriend Laird (Franco), a billionaire internet guru.
Naturally, Ned takes an instant dislike to Laird who does nothing but swear all the time, speak inappropriately about his desires for Stephanie (and Barb too, if we’re being honest), and surround himself with hipsters and hangers-on that Ned is afraid are a bad influence on his daughter and high school age son, who is also along for the trip and falls deeply under Laird’s spell. Essentially Why Him? is a slight reworking of Meet the Parents, which, not coincidentally, Hamburg also had a hand in writing. So for about two hours, we get Franco cursing but being generally likable and Cranston overreacting to everything he does and driving his family away from him, especially his precious baby girl.
The movie certainly has its fair share of funny moments. Nearly every moment Keegan-Michael Key has on screen as Gustav, the manager of Laird’s estate and calendar, is pretty funny. There’s a party sequence that features a host of famous faces—some playing themselves, including Steve Aoki and inventor/entrepreneur Elon Musk—and some playing other Silicon Valley big shots, including Casey Wilson and Andrew Rannells as the inventors of e-vite, which naturally rubs Ned the wrong way. And I kind of loved the idea of the voice of Laird’s home version of Siri being Kaley Cuoco, just because he likes her voice.
But after a while, the steady stream of Ned’s reactions to Laird, as well as him lying to his family about the state of his company, wore me down, especially when he attempts to sabotage Laird’s attempt to propose to Stephanie. As the film went on, I found it increasingly difficult to find anything redeeming about Ned, even if you try to excuse his bad behavior to being overly protective. And any goodwill Franco might garner from being about 40 percent completely insane in a sweet way goes away after every one of his funny moments are tied to him swearing up a storm. Certainly I don’t object to four-letter words, but they alone don’t make a joke; you have to figure out how to use them in a funny way. Hamburg (who also wrote and directed I Love You, Man) has done much better in the R-rated environment, but here, he seems lost.
Why Him? doesn’t even work as a love story, either between Stephanie and Laird or the attempts made to rekindle the flame between Ned and Barb. By the end, the film just runs out of energy and crawls on its hands and knees to the inevitable finish line involving a band that means a lot to the Flemings. So much of the film (especially material involving Ned’s co-workers at the printing company) seems like filler, when what really is required is trimming the fat to get to the funnier material. To his credit, Franco gives it his all and throws himself into the cursing free spirit that Laird has become. Cranston, on the other hand, is essentially playing a grumpier version of his dad character from “Malcolm in the Middle.” The film isn’t built of evil, but it tests your endurance, especially in the second half, without much payoff. It was a closer call than you might think, but Why Him? still doesn’t pull it together in a satisfying manner.