I was not expecting to enjoy this film. Director and co-writer John Hamburg specializes in the comedy of embarrassment, as seen in such pictures as Along Came Polly and Meet the Parents. His last film was Zoolander 2, which drove me out of the theater. But I have to admit, Why Him? is likable and funny.

It earns its R rating with raw language and raunchy gags that stretch the definition of what some people call good taste. But unlike other films of this stripe, Why Him? allows two talented actors to bring their characters to life with just the right balance of believability and comic exaggeration.

In a welcome return to comedy, Bryan Cranston plays a Midwestern businessman whose daughter has fallen in love with a Silicon Valley billionaire, played with cheerful abandon by James Franco. He is a wildly self-indulgent eccentric with too much disposable income who lives in an ultramodern mansion with a private zoo. He genuinely loves Stanford student Zoey Deutch, the daughter of Cranston and Megan Mullally. When the entire family, including Deutch’s kid brother, come to visit for Christmas, Franco sets the stage to ask Cranston for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Needless to say, Father is aghast at this prospect.

Hamburg and co-writer Ian Helfer (working from a story they initiated with Jonah Hill) build in a backstory that explains Franco’s behavior: he never knew his father and his mother wasn’t there for him. He’s never had parental figures to guide him; he’s like a pet who means well but hasn’t had toilet training.

Keegan-Michael Key plays Franco’s endlessly patient, German-accented aide-de-camp and life coach, who tries to keep him on track. It’s a broad performance that pays off in big laughs. Everyone gets a chance to shine, including the always-welcome Mullally and Griffin Gluck, who plays her adolescent son. The winsome Deutch is essentially the straight-woman here and does her job well.

But the film belongs primarily to Cranston, as an uptight dad, and Franco, as a freewheeling guy with no boundaries or filters who wants to be his son-in-law. The movie works because they do their job so well. Cranston isn’t a boob, but he is stubborn and foolish, which gets him into awkward situations. Franco’s character is extreme but he has a good heart, and that’s the key to the movie’s success.

I can’t call this a guilty pleasure because it sneaked up on me; I normally don’t enjoy this kind of R-rated humor. Why Him? isn’t destined to be a critical darling, I’m sure…but it made me laugh.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024