Guess Who's Meeting the Parents?: "Why Him?" is spotty but not laugh-free

Why Him? (2016)
111 min., rated R.

There are films that arrive with low expectations and unexpectedly surprise you. “Why Me?” isn’t quite a prize—you can already hear the title being used as ammunition with easy puns like "Why Bother?"—but earns points for being far more tolerable than its worrisome, cringe-inducing ads. As a slight, raunchier variation on 2000’s “Meet the Parents,” it is of little surprise that this R-rated Christmastime comedy was directed by John Hamburg (2009’s “I Love You, Man”), who wrote that memorable Ben Stiller-Robert De Niro hit and its two diminished-to-abysmal “Focker” sequels. Amusing in spots but indefensible, the film flips the script by bringing the family home to meet the boyfriend, but at least here is a studio comedy with an intergenerational rivalry that doesn’t turn everyone into a bunch of idiots. Because of the enjoyable cast game to bring the funny, it would be a lie to claim that “Why Him?” offers no laughs. It’s just spotty.

Michigan printing company manager Ned Flemming (Bryan Cranston) has always been close with daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), who’s now a 22-year-old student at Stanford. After an unplanned but terrible first impression on a Skype call during Ned’s 55th birthday party, he, wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and 15-year-old son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) realize Stephanie has been keeping something from them when a guy enters her dorm room and unintentionally moons the entire family (and their friends). For Christmas, they agree to fly to California and spend it with her, but instead of taking them to the airport, Stephanie takes them to stay at the Palo Alto mansion of her boyfriend, 32-year-old video game-designing mogul Laird Mayhew (James Franco). When the Flemmings officially meet him, he is free-spirited and unfiltered, to say the least, welcoming them without a shirt on. Laird freely expresses his four-letter vocabulary, inappropriately compliments Barb’s body, and openly talks about his and Stephanie’s love life. He’s eager to please by showing off his new tattoo of the Flemming family’s Christmas card on his back and building a bowling alley for Ned, but not much pleases Ned, especially when Laird asks Stephanie’s father for his blessing to marry her. Hilarity ensues here and there.

Neither awful nor fully successful, “Why Him?” constantly hits and misses. Co-written by director John Hamburg and Ian Helfer (2011’s “The Oranges”) with a story credit by Jonah Hill, the one-joke script comes close to becoming the kind of wacky, hacky, strained at-loggerheads farce that has begun its own subgenre with “Monster-in-Law,” “Mr. Woodcock,” and “Bride Wars.” The difference here is that Laird isn’t actually evil behind Stephanie’s back, and infantilization between Laird and Ned is kept to a minimum. For better or for worse, "Why Him?" has more in common with 1993 Pauly Shore starrer "Son in Law."

One may wonder how accolade-winning actor Bryan Cranston got roped into working on a comedy like this, but he shows as much commitment here as he did playing Walter White. Cranston never overplays Ned Flemming as a Fuddy-Duddy or Overprotective Father cliché but still comes across as a human being; he is simply an out-of-touch family man still living in analog times but in denial about his printing business eventually bottoming out. Ned loves his daughter and wants what's best for her, and he understandably thinks Stephanie can do a whole lot better than Laird upon his first impression. As for James Franco, there is always an unpredictable danger and outright weirdness to him—and not only in his life visible to the public eye—and here as the ingratiating Laird, the grinning, twinkle-eyed actor meets somewhere in the middle of unctuous and sweetly idiotic. Though his puppyish doofus-with-a-heart-of-gold shtick doesn’t always hit, Franco can be endearing and does earn laughs, one moment in particular being when he comes to have a talk with Ned and Barb in their bedroom, still dripping wet through his caftan after having a shower.

The winning Zoey Deutch (2016's "Everybody Wants Some!!") makes her Stephanie easy to like, even when it’s initially difficult to see what she actually sees in Laird. It could have been even more of a thankless prop of a role than it already is, but Deutch gives the character backbone and her own voice. Megan Mullally, who always seems to be saddled or mistreated with nothing roles in lesser film projects, brightens her scenes whenever she can. As Barb, Mullally gets to let loose, particularly when her character ends up vaping weed, and makes a solid “good cop” foil for Cranston. Keegan-Michael Kelly has his moments as Laird’s manservant Gustav who trains him in self-defense with ambush exercises, but just a little of Gustav goes a long way. It’s also good to see Andrew Rannells and Casey Wilson in anything, even if their roles don’t register as more than cameos.

Scattered across 111 minutes, there are about as many groans as there are laughs. Technology bits, like a paper-free, high-tech Japanese toilet and Kaley Cuoco’s intrusive Siri-like disembodied voice, are pretty inspired. Celebrity chef Richard Blais working as Laird's personal chef and serving up edible soil and paper for Stephanie's family is a funny idea, and there is a fun running joke with KISS. When the script dumbs itself down and lets Laird’s fondness for profanity go on and on, it wears out its welcome. The film's high or low point, depending on one's taste in comedy, is its most Sandlerian gag involving the pretentious installation art that of a dead moose inside a glass tank full of its own urine; the penultimate punchline is better than the one that follows, which desperately wants to shock and involves said dead moose's testicles. Landing a one-out-of-five joke average in nearly two hours' time might not impress, but “Why Him?” still isn’t the most grating way to pass the time during the stressful holidays. That would be "Bad Santa 2."

Grade: C +