A marriage at the center of a movie is bound to stir a pot of potentially suppressed emotions and insecurities. When people are on edge, personae break down and pretense becomes a life raft. Our social fight-or-flight responses peak with those we love, because the most threatening thing most of us face in our lives is the danger of social failure and rejection. If I fail to live up to expectations, I’ll be alone: that sort of thing. A marriage at the center of a movie makes for excellent comedy—these psychologically morbid fears respond especially well to the lowest-brow humor.
Why Him? continues a theme found in I Love You, Man, one with which director John Hamburg (also writer of Meet the Parents) is so familiar—that of approaching male relationships through a historically romantic Hollywood nucleus. Hamburg’s circuitous route to his favorite topic (male insecurity) comes, like in I Love You, Man, pre-marriage.
When an enterprising healthcare student (Zoey Deutch, till deserving of meatier roles since her supporting turn in the other big 2016 movie with punctuation, Everybody Wants Some!!) convinces her family to spend Christmas (another emotional prime-time for comedy) with her boyfriend, the profane and inked Silicon Valley CEO Laird Mayhew (James Franco, at his most gleefully oily and unpretentious), the culture shock conducts like a blow dryer in a bathtub. The owner of a dying printing company, her father Ned (Bryan Cranston playing between his fatherly Malcolm in the Middle role and his why-am-I-putting-up-with-this-sleazeball bits of Breaking Bad comedy) finds himself the focus of the most affection as Laird aims to propose with Ned’s blessing. An ultimatum is given and a quest undertaken.
The worlds-colliding jokes come fast and often, starting with Laird’s virtuosic swearing and unbridled enthusiasm for sexual candor. Few actors could handle the sheer wordcount of emphatic swearing while retaining an ounce of charm: Franco runs through a Holden Caulfield vocabulary like he’s in The Sound of Music, arms wide and any filler words replaced by those with four letters. In turn, Ned’s initial shock, then growing frustration and dejectedness at his daughter’s relationship choice, comes from a true place of empathetic cultural divide. There are commonalities beneath the elder’s sweater vest and the younger’s tattoo-revealing tank top, but the difference between the communication ethos of each is squeezed into a dense divide: a salesman, a smooth-talking pupil of Dale Carnegie, versus a child of start-ups and new money who’s never had an understanding of “professionalism” because he’s had marketable skills since immaturity.
The divide is generational and, in some aspects, class-driven. Deutch’s character slowly fades from the film, as her love is not contested by the pair—rightfully so, as the film makes its case for her autonomy late in the final act—and the possible father-son relationship comes to a head. Laird’s childhood paternal lack created a void that his overbearing filter-less-ness yearns to fill, so he overperforms to impress Cranston’s character like the foolish wooer in a typical romantic comedy. His love isn’t quite the opposite of Freudian (though the father-daughter sexual insecurity is cleverly present) but is of a more postmodern need, which, when siphoned through the strange world of the uber-rich (complete with deconstructed meals and a hilarious groundskeeper played by Keegan-Michael Key), reveals a complex and deep well of humor.
Financial and sexual insecurities fit into jokes about sexual oversharing and technological ineptitude while the set designers stuff every frame with an artistic gag. The film pops even when we’re not ogling hilariously-labeled portraits of animals in flagrante delicto, with the modern architecture used to frame both its quietest conversations and rowdiest ragers inside the ever-present juxtaposition of Silicon Valley excess and Midwest conservatism.
The limited pop culture references and focus on its talented supporting players (especially the other family members, Megan Mullally as the mom and the wonderfully earnest Griffin Gluck as the little brother) give Why Him? a charm that doesn’t bury its insight, beyond a closing cameo already meant as a bonding throwback to everyone’s days as a romantic adolescent. While the film isn’t quite as nuanced or boundary-pushing as Hamburg’s finest directorial effort, it’s always a remarkable thing that the holiday season’s most wholesome comedy can hide so well under a thick veneer of dick jokes.
Director: John Hamburg
Writers: John Hamburg, Ian Helfer
Starring: James Franco, Bryan Cranston, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Keegan-Michael Key
Release Date: December 23, 2016