The public’s demand for Yuletide raunch must be insatiable. In a debauched holiday movie season that has already given us Bad Santa 2 and Office Christmas Party, the latest product to emerge from the filth-factory assembly line is Why Him?, a culture-clash comedy set during an eventful Christmas vacation, pitting an early-model, sweater-wearing dad against the gutter-mouthed, comprehensively tatted tech millionaire courting his collegiate daughter.
Not 10 minutes elapse before we bask in James Franco’s bare buttocks, and jokes about defecation, double penetration, vaginal massages and a certain type of Asian pornography tumble out of the screenplay like objects in an obscene stocking.
That many of these jokes succeed beyond all expectation is a guilty pleasure I must concede. Why Him? is a shallow, deeply unchallenging and ultimately cloying movie, but unlike those two previous examples of cynical, seasonal hedonism, it’s actually funny, a Christmas miracle achieved largely through skillful casting and clever production design.
Bryan Cranston, whose selection of subpar material never gets in the way of an essence-capturing performance, embodies a wilting generation. His Ned Fleming is the manager of a moribund Michigan printing company suffering death by a thousand cuts as his clients, one by one, abandon ship for the cheaper, more efficient confines of Internet advertising. A Luddite of dinosauric proportions, the man still owns an actual Rolodex — which makes him the ideal foil to Franco’s extravagantly wired pleasure seeker. An old fish in young, wanton waters, Cranston’s task during Why Him? is mostly to don a rotating mask of constipation and stupefaction, but damn if he doesn’t wear it better than most.
Invited by his daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) to meet her new boyfriend Laird (James Franco) at his San Jose pleasure palace, Ned is turned off not only by the crudeness of Laird’s tactless, filterless communication skills but of the extravagant connectedness and nouveau efficiencies of his “smart” home. Gags about molecular gastronomy — i.e. edible newspaper as a side dish — feel behind the cultural curve by about five years, but elsewhere, director John Hamburg hits his comic targets with mischievous ripeness: Laird’s insistence at maintaining a paperless household, even in the lavatory, inspires one of the strongest set pieces. And a recurring bit about the omniscient, Siri-esque voice Laird installed throughout his home — a sonorous goddess forever observing the mortals and commenting on their foibles — is both hilarious and Orwellian, a commentary on convenience run amok.
More gifted comic actors, deft in the art of turd-polishing, rescue an otherwise clichéd script. Megan Mullally, as Ned’s wife Barb, proves once again an expert of comic timing and funny-sexy seduction; Keegan-Michael Key is always a welcome presence, as Laird’s estate manager and unorthodox personal trainer; and Griffin Gluck sells the movie’s funniest rejoinders as Stephanie’s younger brother, the first to fall under Laird’s Dionysian spell.
And fall they do, as surely as the placid bourgeois family in Pasolini’s Teorema succumbs to the rapacious, id-like energy of Terence Stamp’s primitive disrupter. (Please, folks, see Teorema before this film). So it goes, until only Ned, obstinately clinging to the obvious — that his daughter deserves better than a pampered, privileged lout who uses abhorrent phrases like “super-cazh” and “totes” — resists Laird’s persuasive “authenticity.”
Comfortable as the film is with earning its biggest laughs at the lowest common denominators, the most egregious aspect of Why Him? is ultimately its adherence to storybook schmaltz — the sense of relentless positivity that has accompanied otherwise louche comedies in the post-Apatow America. The almost parodic tidiness of Why Him?’s milquetoast conclusion, with its kumbaya collusion of Boomer wisdom and millennial wiles, feels especially unearned, even for the holiday season.
Enjoy the toilet humor before the final flush. During the groaning denouement, you’ll miss it.
WHY HIM? Director: John Hamburg; Cast: Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Megan Mullally, Zoey Deutch, Griffin Gluck, Keegan-Michael Key; Distributor: 20th Century Fox; Rating: R; Opens: Today at most area theaters