As the car crash that was 2016 gradually ceases to smoulder, you’ll want to clamber out of the wreckage and enjoy a good-old fashioned escapist comedy on Boxing Day. Oh, mate. It’s not your year.
Why Him? is a Christmas film in the sense that its events take place around Christmas for no real reason, but hey, let’s invite it in on a technicality and offer it an eggnog. And why not: it’s the season of goodwill and it comes bearing gifts. Cranston! Mullally! Franco! A director who co-wrote Zoolander and Meet The Parents! It can’t be all bad.
And let’s be charitable: it’s not all bad; it just misfires a lot, and fails to make much hay out of a strong concept. Cranston’s daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) is dating tech millionaire Franco and introducing him to her parents for the first time, and they don’t like him because he’s brash and has no filter. Doesn’t sound like much, I know, but in my experience, the best film comedies come out of simple conflicts that give the actors plenty to riff on.
It’s Franco who should be riffing the most and he has a good go, but you can’t shake the feeling his heart’s not in it. The whole things rests on his character Laird being unsuitable for Stephanie, and he’s sweary and inappropriate, but not extreme enough. All Laird is doing is trying too hard to make his future in-laws like him, and in doing so he rubs them up the wrong way, but throughout he’s kind, hospitable and doing his best to make them feel welcome in his home. You’re never in doubt that he’s a good guy trying to do the right thing; he’s just oblivious to social niceties.
So really the problem is that Cranston’s Ned is a bit too stuffy and needs to get over it, but that’s not the story we’re sold: we’re supposed to root for him to expose Laird as an unsuitable husband. Why would we, though? Effectively this is Bachelor Party seen through the eyes of the father-in-law rather than the groom. Whereas that left you in no doubt whose side you were on – because while Tom Hanks was brash and laddish he was ultimately decent and loved his fiancé, and her parents were a bit stuck-up – here the roles aren’t reversed; you’re just watching the same thing from the other side of the room, unsure why you’re having to cheer on the wrong guy.
Cranston’s journey here is stuffed-shirt to badass, which is obviously pretty familiar territory for him, but this fulfilment comes late on, so in the main he’s there to represent our own reaction to Laird’s clowning. He’s aided very ably by Megan Mullally as his wife Barb, who does a good line in quiet asides underneath everyone else and little trail-offs when she’s embarrassed. There are a few good set-pieces too (though some in the trailer are missing from the film: never a good sign), and one involving a Hirstian pickled moose artwork even drew a few claps from some around me.
It ends fairly strongly, with Stephanie helping us remember she’s able to make her own decisions without two men fighting over her future, but it’s a resolution not quite earned by what’s gone before. It’d be unfair to blame the whole thing on Franco, who, God knows, gets blamed for enough as it is, but probably the key to elevating it lies with his character. It’s a tough one: turn him into a really bad guy for more conflict, but make him much harder to redeem by the end? Maybe there’s no good answer. Let’s just file it under 2016 with all the rest of it, eh?
Why Him? is in UK cinemas from Boxing Day.