Long before he was mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned fearsome drug lord on Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston made his mark in television comedy by, among other things, keeping Malcolm in the middle, and tending to Seinfeld’s teeth. Those comedic chops stand him in good stead for WHY HIM?, an intermittently hilarious hybrid of the buddy film and fish-out-of-water comedy genres in which he plays a straight-laced straight man to a blissed out James Franco. Cranston’s mastery of the slow burn coupled with discomfited politeness makes the most of a script that regularly goes off the rails into crass and scatological shoals.
Cranston is Ned, the still-proud proprietor of a failing Detroit printing business. He’s keeping that to himself for the moment from his family, what with it being Christmas and his certitude that the deal that will save him is just around the corner. Fortunately, he finds an absorbing distraction in Laird (Franco) the serious boyfriend his daughter, Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), wants him to meet. In fact, she wants the whole family to fly out to California, where she is studying at Stanford, for the holidays in order for them all to get acquainted.
It does not go well. Aside from the usual issues surrounding fathers dealing with their daughters growing away from them, Laird brings his own special brand of eccentricity. A tech tycoon, he lives a life without the usual boundaries of personal space, and no filter to whatever comes into his unconventional mind. He’s also a genuinely nice guy who adores Stephanie so much that he had her face tattooed over his heart after their second date. So when he compliments Stephanie’s mom, Barb (Megan Mullally) for having a smoking bod, and challenges her 15-year-old brother, Scotty (Griffin Gluck) to come up with his favorite cuss words, or engages in enthusiastically inappropriate PDAs with Stephanie, it’s coming from a good, if profanity-laced, place.
Laird is determined to win Ned over, a determination that only serves to alienate Ned all the more, even as the paperless toilets confound Ned’s efforts to, well, you know, and the cutting-edge gastronomy purveyed by Laird’s chef confuse both him and Barb with edible dirt and liquefied Kobe beef.
One of the two best things about WHY HIM? is the one-sided war between Ned and Laird. Even at his most profane, Laird is still somehow the soul of childlike innocence, and there is not a trace of guile in the hero-worship he offers a resolutely hostile Ned. Dancing around them, Mullally has a light touch as the soccer mom with hidden reserves of her wild-child past still roiling just below the surface in a role that is essentially a reactive one, and Deutch, who is ripe peach of an ingenue with little to do other than look aghast at her boyfriend’s cluelessness. They are both less clearly defined, though, than Kaley Cuoco as the sassy voice of Laird’s computer factotum, and all three of the pale beside the other best thing thing here. That would be the high-wattage weirdness of Keegan Michael-Key as Laird’s estate manager, Gustav. Major domo with a flair for the dramatic, sensitive house psychologist, tech troubleshooter, and ruthless teacher of self-defense, he is the ringmaster smoothing rough patches with just the right soothing phrase, fluttering in to Laird’s rescue when he trips over his own faux-pas, or cueing the in-house chorus what to warble as blows are exchanged.
As a satire on pricey trendiness versus homespun values, WHY HIM? makes a few salient, if hackneyed, points almost in spite of itself, before succumbing to the requisite schmaltz about the importance of family over artisanal llamas and frightening artwork (the paintings in Laird’s house are by Mr. Franco and whether done for deliberately comedic purposes I leave to you). It makes the entire experience as awkward as Laird’s habit of invading personal space with more information than any of us want to know.