Christmas is one of the busiest moviegoing days of the year, and not just because many families need a two-hour break from each other. Some of the year’s best, most exciting films come out around the holidays. “Why Him?” is not among them.
The comedy from director and co-writer John Hamburg (“I Love You, Man”) exists primarily as counterprogramming for the miserable souls who need a movie when “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “Passengers” are sold out. Despite flashes of brilliance, “Why Him?” is perfunctory and boorish, the sort of film that already has begun to fade from memory before you’re too annoyed by it.
Bryan Cranston risks typecasting as Ned Fleming, a middle-class Everyman who loves his family and the modest printing company he runs. His daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) is his jewel, so he is shocked when she announces that she will not be returning home from Stanford University for Christmas. Instead, she suggests that the Flemings fly out to visit her and meet Laird (James Franco), the tech mogul she’s dating.
Laird does not make a good first impression, unwittingly talking about his nether regions during a video chat. His Silicon Valley home is bizarre, even vulgar, furnished with intrusive gadgets and transgressive nude sculptures. The holiday becomes a battle of wills, as Ned tries to derail Stephanie’s new relationship and Laird attempts to ingratiate himself with the family.
Although family and acceptance are themes of the film, “Why Him?” is not for all ages. It easily earns its R rating with a steady stream of obscenities and gross-out gags that make the humor in “Bad Santa 2” seem tame by comparison. The best comic set pieces all involve understatement: One unreasonably funny scene features Laird’s assistant Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) helping Ned operate a modern Japanese toilet. Few will be immune from the giggles when Ned’s efforts to preserve dignity are interrupted by well-timed toilet noises.
Unfortunately, there are also scenes that Hamburg draws out well beyond the point of coherence. The comic potential of Gustav and Laird’s sparring matches, for instance, deflates faster than a whoopee cushion.
Franco and Cranston are seasoned performers, and their anti-chemistry is kind of admirable. Laird may be forthright and strange, yet he has no idea how he constantly offends Ned, whose attempts at sabotage also demonstrate a keen lack of self-awareness. The strait-laced guy who comes to find that no one respects him isn’t a new comic conceit, yet Cranston has enough skill that we can see the fear that informs his character’s behavior.
Still, “Why Him?” has little curiosity about the impulses that drive its characters, relying instead on stale generation-gap humor. Ned’s dying, paper-based company is set up as a foil to Laird’s digital business model. Meanwhile, some viewers’ minds may wander from the plot to such thorny topics as the economics of printed wedding invitations.
“Why Him?” ends on a folksy note, in a maudlin affirmation of family values that is both strange and strangely unsatisfying, given the film’s previous violations of good taste. (The most remarkable thing about it is its willingness to offend.) Contemporary comedy fans are likely to roll their eyes at the emotional parts, while more old-fashioned moviegoers may wonder what’s so funny about an aquarium filled with moose urine.
When it comes to family entertainment options, board game night at home is looking better and better.
One star. Rated R. Contains coarse language, nudity, violence and crude humor. 111 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.