Editor’s Note: Why Him? is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
It’s a father’s worst nightmare. There he is, minding his own business (i.e., trying to hack into a tech-bro’s computer) and in walks his daughter and her tech-bro where – unprompted by anything except their raging hormones – they enter into the first, pre-coital stage toward heterosexual coupling while the daughter’s father squirms under a desk (they’re on the desk, he’s under it). That scene exemplifies the “comedy of humiliation and discomfort” that runs uninterruptedly through Why Him?, a mostly sub-par comedy centered around the age-old conflict between fathers and boyfriends (or husbands), each in turn treating daughter or girlfriend (or wife) as an object without agency, an object to protect for fathers, an object of desire for boyfriends (or husbands), all, of course, existing in a primarily heterosexual, heteronormative world where Silicon Valley tech-bros rule with a mix of benevolence and frivolity while analog businesses are doomed to the industrial scrapheap.
Without the idea of Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) as an object or possession, Why Him? wouldn’t exist.
Maybe there’s too much truth in that statement or maybe not enough, but as a film, Why Him? attempts to give inter-generational conflict a contemporary, semi-satirical spin by pitting the aforementioned tech-bro, Laird Mayhew (James Franco), a video game savant with an obsession with ill-conceived tattoos and “no filter” (i.e., he speaks his juvenile mind at every opportunity, usually peppered with multiple F-bombs), who’s somehow fallen in love with Stephanie Fleming (Zoey Deutch), an idealistic, ten-years younger Stanford student. Stephanie’s also fallen in love with Laird (somehow she centers him) and not just because he’s offered to make her president/CEO of his charitable foundation (though that undoubtedly helps), but she’s also wisely keeps Laird a secret from her parents, Ned (Bryan Cranston), the owner of a struggling printing company, and Barb (Megan Mullally), until they fly out from their suburban winter home in Michigan, Stephanie’s impressionable 15-year-old brother and budding entrepreneur, Scotty (Griffin Gluck), in tow, for the Christmas holidays in Northern California.
From the start, everything goes sideways. Ned’s uptight, Midwestern mindset, his adherence to old-school notions of proper, respectful behavior, conflict with Laird’s free-spirited, anything goes attitudes. It helps, of course, that Laird’s money lets him do and say practically everything he wants, but he’s also oddly a gender traditionalist at heart: He wants to ask Ned for permission to marry Stephanie. It gives the seemingly powerless Ned the wedge he needs – or thinks he needs – to drive Stephanie away from Laird. While Ned claims he simply wants Stephanie to finish her studies at Stanford, graduate, and enter the real (working) world first before settling down, there’s more than a trace of jealousy, some of it possibly sexual, in Stephanie’s romantic relationship with Laird. It’s subtext that becomes text when one of Ned’s senior employees, Lou Dunne (Cedric the Entertainer), can’t help but mention sex and college (i.e., overabundance of the first in the second) and later, of course, when circumstances force Ned to overhear Stephanie and Laird having loud, energetic sex while he cringes and winces just a few feet away (or actually, below).
Why Him? attempts to give inter-generational conflict a contemporary, semi-satirical spin.
That sexual anxiety and/or jealousy inherent in modern American masculinity, not to mention Ned and Laird’s mutually shared, if subconscious, belief in Stephanie, not as a young woman with agency of her own, but as an object to protect (Ned) or of desire (Laird). A late-film speech tries to directly argue against either conception of Stephanie via dialogue, but it feels like too little, too late (because it is), especially considering that without the idea of Stephanie as an object or possession, Why Him? wouldn’t exist, at least not in the form that unfolds onscreen. As for the answer to the Why Him? question, it wouldn’t be crass, crude, or vulgar to assume that it can be found in the money and status wielded by Laird. Money can buy you everything, except, perhaps, the love of a 22-year-old Stanford student.
Subtext and text aside, Why Him? also gleans humor from the usual sources, like Barb getting massively stoned at a techno-rave at Laird’s mansion and coming on to a horrified, possibly disgusted Ned or Scotty repeatedly, loudly expressing his appreciation of female breasts, or maybe less predictably, sneak attacks from Laird’s best friend/therapist/trainer/interior designer, Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key), often interrupting random conversations to test Laird’s physical progress. Not surprisingly, it’s not a new routine at all. It’s taken from the Pink Panther series (name-checked here for the 5-10 members of the audience familiar with Peter Sellers’ unique creation). It helps too that Cranston, Mullally, Franco, and Key (among others) are comedy pros that can wring flat, sub-par writing into genuine laughs, but ultimately that says far more about the casting than the bland writing (Meet the Parents veteran John Hamburg and Ian Helfer, from a story credited to Hamburg, Helfer, and Jonah Hill) or the uninspired directing (Hamburg again).
Despite featuring a bevy of comedy pros, Why Him?, a mostly sub-par comedy centered around the age-old conflict between fathers and boyfriends, never rises above being bland and uninspiring.