There are reasons that John Hamburg’s Why Him? shouldn’t work. The plot is an inversion of Meet the Parents (which Hamburg co-wrote), with Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston) finding himself repulsed by his beloved daughter Stephanie’s (Zoey Deutch) eccentric tech-entrepreneur boyfriend, Laird Mayhew (James Franco), upon meeting him in California. The film certainly hits all the expected beats, and the filmmakers commit the Apatow-ian sin of allowing most of the scenes—many of them with dialogue clearly improvised—to go on longer than necessary, running jokes into the ground as if everyone involved was deathly afraid of viewers not getting them in the first place.
So it is that Ned can’t just acknowledge how Laird’s estate manager, Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key), randomly attacks his employer in ways that resemble Cato’s surprise attacks on Inspector Clouseau in Blake Edwards’s Pink Panther films, but has to also explain the analogy at agonizing length to both characters for their, and presumably our, benefit. And a gross-out sequence detailing Ned’s increasingly embarrassing experience with a high-tech Japanese toilet bowl stretches the joke of a middle-American’s cluelessness when it comes to foreign technology past the breaking point.
Still, Why Him? is surprisingly amiable, thanks to the commitment of its lead actors and its refusal to condescend to its characters. Laird is more than just a collection of random cutesy quirks: A man who, he admits at one point, immersed himself in video games in order to stave off loneliness during his sheltered childhood, he emerged in adulthood as a tech genius with a new-age streak, but one with seemingly no social graces whatsoever, seeing nothing wrong in wantonly swearing in front of Ned’s teenage son, Scotty (Griffin Gluck), or walking around his mansion in a bathrobe while still dripping wet from a shower. Even at his most off-putting, there’s a sweetness to Laird that makes Stephanie’s attraction to him—and eventually that of her parents and brother—seem understandable. Inking the faces of Stephanie’s family members onto his back may be extreme given that Laird hadn’t even met them prior to getting the tattoos, but Franco allows us a glimpse of the sincere desire for familial warmth and acceptance that motivates the gesture.
And though it’s easy to see why the straight-arrow, uptight Ned would feel uncomfortable around Laird, there’s a core of economic resentment on Ned’s part that complicates simplistic good-versus-evil dichotomies. While Laird, a young billionaire, is living large on his digital success and upper-class privilege, Ned is struggling to keep his analog paper-printing company back in Michigan financially afloat, a fact that he’s trying to keep from his family. Thus, his resistance to Laird, to some degree, gets at something much deeper: a fear of modernization on his part that only further feeds into a feeling of obsolescence that he has difficulty acknowledging.
Such welcome attention to character detail might not have amounted to much if not for Franco and Cranston finding humanity in what could have been one-note caricatures. With his performances in this, Spring Breakers, and Pineapple Express, Franco is carving out a niche for himself playing lovable idiots. Opposite him, Cranston provides a solid counterbalance as the increasingly frazzled straight man, reminding us of the comic gifts he displayed in Malcolm in the Middle before he became more closely associated with television, film, and stage dramas. Why Him? almost feels like a character study at times, which helps make this overlong, hit-or-miss mainstream comedy more involving than one would have had any reason to expect.