The conflict between old and young, middle-class and bonkers-rich, city mouse and country mouse, and son-in-law and father-in-law can be a fertile source for comedy. But even the most fertile soil has to be tilled, seeded and watered — the crops don’t just leap into your hand.
“Why Him?” takes its potentially hilarious premise and does precious little with it. The comedy is directed by John Hamburg, author of all three “Fockers” movies, with Ben Stiller’s production company backing it, and it’s clear that this brain trust decided that all they’d have to do is reverse the formula — make the son-in-law the weird one and the father-in-law uptight — and they could just sit back and let the laughs roll in.
They do not, and the results are particularly cringe-worthy since they so frequently waste the talents of James Franco and Bryan Cranston, two actors who have proven themselves to be skillful purveyors of both comedy and drama, here forced to inhabit lazy generational stereotypes that never resemble legitimate human beings.
Cranston plays Ned Fleming, owner of a Midwestern printing company that’s slowly dying on the vine in an increasingly paperless society. He’s also stuck with the name “Ned,” which is a lazy, outdated screenwriter shorthand for Americans who live between the coasts. It’s as lazy as naming a woman “Barb,” which is how Hamburg and co-writer Ian Helfer (“The Oranges”) have tagged Ned’s wife.
Daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch, “Everybody Wants Some!!”) convinces Ned and Barb (Megan Mullally) and her younger brother Scotty (Griffin Gluck, “Middle School”) to spend Christmas with her in California. What they don’t realize is that she wants them to meet her boyfriend Laird (Franco), a video game creator with a lush Silicon Valley mansion, managed by right-hand man Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key).
It’s an awkward meeting: Laird’s idea of putting out the welcome mat is to tattoo the Flemings’ Christmas-card photo across his back, and over meals of smoked bear meat and edible paper, he tends to overshare, frequently using strong language. Naturally, Ned freaks out when he finds out that Laird intends to propose to Stephanie, and that she plans to drop out of Stanford to run Laird’s global health foundation.
If Laird and Ned weren’t such sketchy, sitcom versions of, respectively, a millennial millionaire and a flyover futz, Franco and Cranston could probably have eked some level of entertainment out of the goings-on here. But “Why Him?” operates in a world of such stupidity and shorthand that it’s impossible to be caught up in their conflict.
When Stephanie complains late in the film that these two men have been clashing with each other without taking her feelings into account, it becomes an accidental moment of meta-commentary — the film itself has barely treated her like a human being by this point, so why should the other characters?
The only performers who manage to wring laughs out of the barely-there comedy are Mullally, who finds deep wells of friskiness as the oft-neglected Barb, and Key, acting in his own private screwball comedy, down to the goofy accent. (Adam Devine, Casey Wilson and Andrew Rannells provide a moment of comic spark as three of Laird’s fellow internet titans, but their cameos are all too brief.)
“Why Him?” is the kind of movie that makes trendy sophistication and homespun values look equally unattractive; the only remaining alternative is anarchy, an ingredient that’s sadly lacking in this bland, formulaic comedy.