‘Why Him?’ Review: James Franco’s Penis Is a Father’s Worst Nightmare
Why Him? begins with a Netflix and chill Facetime request wherein James Franco’s pubic hair is shown for a long enough time that you know he’s not going to go any further in disrobing. The length of time spent on the threat of seeing Franco’s penis is essentially repeated for 120+ minutes in this Christmas comedy. The runtime is far too long because the jokes take a while to wind up (like the Netflix and Chill opening, the jokes most frequently center on the audience’s horror of Franco fucking someone’s daughter). And writer-director John Hamburg doesn’t know when to end a scene, let alone the movie.
Why Him?, however, isn’t a lump of coal (that’d be Office Christmas Party). It’s a Christmas present from your trying-to-be-cool aunt or uncle that you fake-pretend to like and then shove away somewhere never to be seen again. The cast is mostly fun. The formula is simple (think Hamburg’s script for Meet the Parents being updated with jokes about bukakke, double dicking and moose testicles). But like the holiday season, it’s just too damn long and sometimes painfully awkward.
Franco is Laird. He’s the (decade plus) older boyfriend of Stephanie (Zoey Deutch). Even though the college junior and the 32 year-old tech wizard have been dating and traveling the world for more than a year, he is not known to Stephanie’s family. His introduction is made while coming over to fuck at her door room when Stephanie is video conferencing into her father’s birthday party. Ned (Bryan Cranston) and Barb (Megan Mullally) are embarrassed. Laird is bare-assed. And one of Ned’s creepy co-workers (Zack Pearlman) is aroused.
After that Skype fiasco, Stephanie decides to invite her parents and younger brother, Scotty (Griffin Gluck), to come out to the Bay area to meet Laird. Turns out that Laird is a complete dummy who has zero social grace or verbal filter but he does have a heavily tattooed body that proclaims his love for Stephanie. Oh and he’s a multi, multi-millionaire with an elaborate house spread that includes roaming buffalo, a moose encased in its own urine and state of the art (and pleasurable) Japanese toilets. Ned, whose printing business is floundering in the digital age, is convinced that Laird’s opulent lair is a total sham and tries to burst his (tech) bubble and prove that father still knows what’s best for his daughter.
As performed by Franco and written by Hamburg, Laird is too stupid to believe, but there is a constant thread of decency that’s evident in scenes where he’s attempting to win over Ned and Scotty. The occasional enjoyment that comes from Why Him? is the comedic commitment of Cranston, Mullally and Keegan-Michael Key as Laird’s German man servant, Gustav. In a comedy that’s overlong, there are great lengthier bits with these performers. Chiefly, the set-ups that really land are Gustav’s sneak attacks to keep Laird on his toes—and Ned’s subsequent delight that they’re essentially doing a Pink Panther routine—and Barb’s interactions with Laird’s A.I. surveillance system (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) as she attempts to seduce her husband when he’s all wound up about the boyfriend.
Still, while Cranston, Mullally, Key and (occasionally) Franco get frequent chuckles, Why Him? is a total disservice to Deutch. Although the Meet the Parents/Father of the Bride template has been updated to have off-color jokes, it still keeps the angelic daughter on the sidelines for most of the film. Sure, there are sexual situations involving Stephanie, but it’s sexual things being done to her that makes her dad hurt. Stephanie doesn’t have a formed identity because the filmmakers spare her from being involved in the ribald.
The result is that Deutch is the only one in the cast who doesn’t get her own comedic moment of her own. It frequently happens for the older men who are ogling her (including a very uncomfortable section where Ned’s co-worker tries to guess Laird’s computer password by naming parts of her body and by demanding to see sexual acts that Stephanie’s engaged in while the computer hacking is in session). Stephanie is afforded the ability to make her own decision about whether she wants to be with Laird or not—and that does feel like a step up from the template mentioned above—but it’s frustrating that Deutch isn’t given time to get into the comedy muck with everyone else. And it’s a damn shame because the Everybody Wants Some!! breakout star is able to give some thoughtful depth, hard-stance femininity and plucky playfulness in the nothing role that she’s given. Enough so, that her coupling with Laird makes absolutely no sense. And for someone who’s trying to get her dad to take to him, she’s rarely present with her family or Laird during anything comedic.
Perhaps if the script allowed Deutch to be in the jokes instead of the jokes being about whatever part of James Franco is going to be in her, then Why Him? could’ve gotten on track? As it is, there are lengthy bits of hit-and-miss comedy without her presence (even though her presence is the catalyst of the plot) and then there are lengthy bits of her being upset at her father. This constant distance between comedy and melodrama creates an overlong holiday film with peaks and valleys in between the chuckles.
However, I’ll say this for Him—even though much of the plot involves a father’s fear of his daughter’s sexual coupling, for a bro-led R-rated comedy (with a story credit for Jonah Hill) there’s a surprising dearth of butt-sex jokes. Joy to the world!