If you introduce a loaded gun in the first act of your story, it absolutely has to go off by the end. Chekhov’s tried-and-tested literary advice holds true in ‘Why Him?’ – except the gun isn’t a gun, but a vast, fragile glass tank filled with moose urine. These are the gags in John Hamburg’s charmless, largely laughless spin on the ‘Meet the Parents’ formula, an over-extended sitcom episode that returns Bryan Cranston to put-upon suburban dad territory.
When his college-senior daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) invites the family to California for Christmas, buttoned-up Michigan print factory owner Ned (Cranston) is introduced to his worst nightmare of a prospective son-in-law. Meet Laird (James Franco), a vulgar, tattooed tech-bro billionaire whose verbal filter is nil, and who thinks nothing of leering over Stephanie’s mother (Megan Mullally) at the dinner table. Yet the twist in this personality clash is that both men are as appalling as each other: Ned is a possessive, controlling dullard, while Laird is an abject dimwit who makes Franco’s pimp Alien in ‘Spring Breakers’ look positively desirable by comparison.
What does smart, sweet Stephanie see in Laird? Don’t hold your breath to find out, since she’s granted as much perspective as a well-spoken ironing board. There could be a thorny dark comedy in this chauvinistic pissing contest. But in trying to get us to like both opponents, the film undercuts most of its sharpest comic potential – leaving us instead with musty jokes involving paper-free toilets and involuntarily witnessing one’s daughter getting it on. The title isn’t the only ‘why’ question viewers should be asking.