Friday, December 23, 2016

Why Him? — Why bother?

Why Him? (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for sexual candor, vulgarity and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang

A modest holiday-themed comedy lurks in the bowels of this wildly uneven movie, but it doesn’t escape very often.

Stephanie (Zoey Deutch, left) is more than a little nervous while introducing boyfriend
Laird (James Franco) to her family: from left, parents Ned (Bryan Cranston) and Barb
(Megan Mullally), and younger brother Scotty (Griffin Gluck).
As has become typical of far too much of today’s “lighter” fare, this flick’s infrequent delights — the story credited to Jonah Hill, John Hamburg and Ian Helfer — are buried beneath an avalanche of profanity and vulgarity.

But that’s clearly a generation gap in the classic sense, very much like the behavioral impasse that separates the characters played here by Bryan Cranston and James Franco. The juvenile, foul-mouthed conduct that prompts long-suffering sighs from many (likely older) viewers, is embraced gleefully by the intended target audience (likely millennials).

And so it goes.

In fairness, director John Hamburg draws quite a few genuine laughs throughout his film, thanks mostly to Cranston’s masterful comic timing. He handles long-suffering and put-upon with hilarious panache, as he demonstrated during his numerous seasons on television’s Malcolm in the Middle (before becoming a “serious actor” in big-screen projects).

Why Him? is a comic homecoming for Cranston, and he maximizes the project’s potential. Not since Father of the Bride’s Steve Martin — or Spencer Tracy, depending on one’s preference — has a Dad become so flummoxed over his daughter’s transition to full independence.

Granted, poor Ned Fleming (Cranston) has a lot more to process.

A web-cam 55th birthday greeting from daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) — completing college courses in California, far from her Michigan home town — is marred by the revelation that she has a guy in her life: the hitherto undisclosed Laird Mayhew (Franco), who bursts into Stephanie’s apartment and proceeds to strip.

Laird’s spontaneous disrobing notwithstanding, the presence of a boyfriend isn’t a shock per se; after all, Stephanie is a responsible, self-sufficient 22 years old. But the fact that Ned and wife Barb (Megan Mullally) haven’t heard about this fellow is a bit distressing, particularly since Ned has long enjoyed a mutually close relationship with his only daughter.

Wanting to make up for this gaffe, Stephanie invites her family to Palo Alto for the impending Christmas weekend, so that everybody — which includes her 15-year-old brother Scotty (Griffin Gluck) — can “get acquainted.” This seems a reasonable olive branch, until Ned, Barb and Scotty actually meet Laird.

He turns out to be an über-wealthy sybarite whose financial success with an incredibly popular computer game has allowed him to indulge every capricious whim. His palatial estate is festooned with bizarre, politicized and conspicuously erotic artwork; the grounds are home to a private menagerie as varied as anything that might have been found at the Playboy Mansion, during its heyday.

The huge home also is filled with people: programmers, eager-beaver interns, and student-age beta-testers camped out in front of monitors. Some of them might live in; Laird honestly isn’t certain. A foofy nouvelle cuisine chef (Richard Blais, in droll stunt-casting) prepares weird dishes that nobody in his right mind would eat; appetizers and craft cocktails are likely to be spot-seared by hand-held butane torches.

The commentary here is hilarious ... assuming that it is an indictment of conspicuous consumption and absurdly rarefied tastes. (Consider Danish chef Rene Redzepi’s recently announced $600-per-person “pop-up” dinners, scheduled for April and May in Mexico. Redzepi, it should be mentioned, frequently experiments with gustatory delights such as butterfly and wasp larvae.)

But Ned and his family have little time to marvel at these outlandish surroundings, because Laird himself is so much larger than life. Irrepressibly foul-mouthed, socially inept, unaware of “comfort zones,” prone to nudity and spontaneous excess, he couldn’t possibly make a worse first impression. (Or second. Or third. Or 75th.)

As Stephanie eventually explains, Laird has a kind heart — and he truly does — but simply lacks filters. His upbringing was far less than optimal, and the sudden infusion of wealth, at a comparatively young age, removed all barriers.

Franco doesn’t so much play this part as hurl himself into it, with the subtlety of a sumo wrestler. Strip the F-bombs from Laird’s dialogue, despite his motor-mouthed nature, and Franco wouldn’t have been left with anything to say. Even so, his giddy, good-natured antics have a certain peculiar charm. At times. In small doses.

But nothing about Hamburg’s approach is “small.” The writer/director responsible for Zoolander, Meet the Fockers and I Love You, Man isn’t one for subtlety, and this new film suffers from a level of self-indulgent excess that Laird would readily recognize. If one of Laird’s “message” artworks is a dead moose suspended in a huge tank of its own urine, you can bet that the script will find a reason for that tank to rupture.

Such a delightful moment. (Not.)

Which is a shame, because other bits are undeniably funny. Laird runs a “paperless household,” and Ned’s first encounter with a computer-controlled toilet is a stitch, in great part due to Cranston’s display of pained and embarrassed expressions. Barb gets her own turn with that, ah, facility a bit later in the story, under slightly different circumstances; Mullally uncorks an equally droll slow take.

Keegan-Michael Key has a lot of fun with his role as Gustav, Laird’s constant companion and sorta-kinda minder, who tries hard to restrain his boss’ wilder impulses. Gustav also keeps Laird physically toned by surprising him with sudden stealth attacks: a ritual that immediately reminds Ned of Inspector Clouseau and Cato — points to the scripters, for acknowledging the reference — and then becomes funnier when, to Ned’s dismay, Laird and Gustav insist they’re unfamiliar with The Pink Panther movies.

There’s also a droll running bit concerning Justine (voiced by Kaley Cuoco, of TV’s The Big Bang Theory), the smart home’s omnipresent “virtual concierge” that oversees everybody’s activity, much to Ned’s suspicious unease.

In other ways, though, the script is just sloppy. Ned runs an old-style printing business back in Michigan, with a workforce staff that includes the shamefully under-utilized Cedric the Entertainer. The business is failing with the decline of print advertising, and unlikely to survive long enough for Scotty to inherit the mantle, but — aside from brief lip service — the scripters squander this opportunity for economic commentary. (And the eventual “solution” to Ned’s plight ducks the issue entirely.)

In anticipation of Ned’s arrival, Laird added a two-lane bowling alley to his home; we witness its use just once, when Ned — by himself — demonstrates a few wicked curves. But this serves no purpose; the bowling alley’s presence is both bewildering and superfluous.

On the other hand, there is a great payoff to Ned’s occasionally stated fondness for the 1970s glam-rock band KISS.

Deutch shines as the lone voice of calm and reason. Stephanie is a breath of fresh air, and — unlikely as it sounds — Deutch persuasively sells the young woman’s ever-patient efforts to micro-manage both her father and her boyfriend.

Gluck, on the other hand, is little more than an eye-rolling distraction. The young actor can’t be blamed; the writers stuck Scotty with all the worst lines, and the most infantile behavior (next to Franco).

Adam Devine and Andrew Rannells, both familiar faces, pop up briefly during an out-of-control party. (That must’ve been a small paycheck!) So does Elon Musk (!).

The jerky pacing and clumsy antics notwithstanding, Hamburg manages a bit of aw-shucks sweetness as the third act concludes. That’s a welcome touch, but it hardly compensates for the uneven two hours that precede this climax.

I’ve often lamented the dearth of good new holiday movies. This one hasn’t changed my opinion.

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