It’s been a while since we’ve seen an onscreen character as thoroughly repulsive as Laird Mayhew, the grody, obsequious, and obscene tech millionaire played by James Franco in Why Him?. Perhaps this is a testament to Franco, an actor who’s often criticized for biting off more than he can chew; this time, he seems to be trying hard to craft a distinctive comedic personality. His success is our misfortune.
Covered in questionable tattoos, clad in baggy sweatpants, and prone to yelling about his dick at the top of his lungs, Laird is irritating both to look at and listen to. He has no chemistry with his college-aged girlfriend Stephanie (Zoey Deutch of Everybody Wants Some!!), preferring instead to hit on Stephanie’s mother (Megan Mullally, a trooper). To compensate for his overwhelming toxicity, Laird throws around his video-game fortune with Muammar Gaddafi–like abandon: His compound features TV-famous personal chefs, a home office that resembles an underwater lair, and tacky paintings and sculptures of animals having sex. What a catch.
As a gesture of good faith, Stephanie’s beleaguered father, Ned (Bryan Cranston), and the rest of the family — Mullally’s cheery matriarch Barb and well-mannered teenage son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) — decamp from their home in Grand Rapids to spend Christmas at Laird’s sprawling Silicon Valley mansion. The images that ensue might haunt you for all your days: a dead moose suspended in a pool of its own urine; a child motorboating his own father; a crude animation of a man being anally raped by a three-headed dragon with a rocket for a penis. Laird’s home is a Xanadu of vulgarity, absent any of the wit and comic timing that distinguishes Franco’s collaborations with Seth Rogen. You know all traces of goodwill have left the building when even Keegan-Michael Key, as a crisply efficient manservant with pointy sideburns, can’t muster much.
Director and co-writer John Hamburg also co-wrote all three Meet the Parents movies, and because Why Him? repeats that movie’s formula, the plot is eventually supposed to arrive at a plausible answer to its own question. We never get there. We do get Ned, quite reasonably, worrying that his daughter might be throwing her life away for a freakishly impulsive manchild. A better movie might have given Ned enough flaws to balance the equation, but all we see here is that he’s a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, and, because he runs a printing company, is also pretty tech-averse. Honestly, if guys like Laird are behind every iPhone app, more of us should go back to handwritten correspondence.
The question in this movie’s title gets a lot of use. A version of it could also apply to pretty much everyone involved, especially Cranston. The actor, who once brilliantly crafted the slow-burning tragedy of Walter White, is forced to mug helplessly through scenes where he’s sprayed in the face with toilet water. Why him?
You could keep asking “Why?” to the movie’s co-writer Jonah Hill (he has story credit) and producer Ben Stiller, both of whom have put their names on much better studio comedies than this one. You could even ask why the filmmakers had to drag in the great state of Michigan, which has been through enough already.
Like The Internship, the 2013 film that saw Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson attempt to get jobs at Google, Why Him? finds the tech lifestyle endlessly amusing. But apart from some bits about a smart home and a painful cameo by Elon Musk, the film doesn’t get its gas from the Valley itself, as much as from weak jokes about the stupid things that rich assholes spend money on. Laird wants Ned’s blessing to propose to Stephanie, and he’s so eager to please that he installs a bowling alley in his basement for the guy. “Regulation-sized,” muses Ned, whose own company is in the red. “That’s rare.”
Yeah, but so what? The only way this movie knows how to depict its hero as a good man is by showing that he occasionally spends his fortune on other people; redemption as a diversifying of assets. Wealth does not confer decency and should not excuse noxious behavior, and it is not a replacement for a soul. But it is, apparently, the final answer to the question in the movie’s title.