There’s no point in reviewing Why Him?. Have you seen the trailer? Congratulations. You’ve pretty much seen the movie, and already know whether its style of comedy is right for you. Have you seen the red-band trailer? Congratulations. Now, you’ve really see the movie
Here’s one of the non-red band trailers [the gag with Cranston throwing a rock at a drone and hitting Casey Wilson instead is not in the movie, btw]:
If you find yourself gravitating toward Why Him? as a potential Christmas break movie this year here are 7 things you can do to amuse yourself because the film alone probably won’t cut it. That might sound like an especially elitist film nerd point of view, particularly since everyone else around me at Why Him? last night laughed pretty consistently. One heavy-set older man in front of me just about had a heart attack he was laughing so hard at the film’s premiere gross-out gag involving a dead elk’s testicles. Yet as I watched Why Him? my mind wandered, and here’s where it went:
1. Try to figure out which of the many potential competing projects required James Franco to have a porn stash
Why Him? opens with a cell phone-recorded video chat between Zoey Deutch and Franco, the former in her dorm room finishing up a term paper and the latter in some nondescript room where he complains about his blue balls having turned black due to going a full 3 days of not having sex with her. It’s about them planning to hook-up later that evening, which pays off a couple of minutes later when Franco arrives and instantly disrobes in Deutch’s room, unaware she’s in the process of Skyping into her father’s birthday party in Michigan and wishing him well. It’s the film’s big comedic introduction, starting things off between parents and daughter’s boyfriend in the worst way possible. However, during this opening video chat Franco sports a porn stash which is called out by Deutch as being unattractive, and thus never re-appears the rest of the movie.
Best guess as to what actually happened here is this video chat opening was added in through reshoots at which point Franco had grown the mustache for a different role. Oddly, though, he could have done this for any number of different projects. Have fun trying to guess which one. As Esquire broke down this past September in an article entitled “Just how many porn-related things is James Franco working on”:
The answer is four—James Franco is involved in four porn-related projects, at least by my count. There’s The Deuce, an upcoming HBO show about the ’70s porn scene in NYC; Kink, an indie documentary about BDSM site Kink.com; his band Daddy’s music video, which is essentially pornographic.
2. Notice how the film screeches to a halt when Cranston talks about The Pink Panther and think back to The Nerdwriter‘s video essay about imitation killing America’s middling comedies
If you saw the Why Him? trailer and realized they were clearly ripping off The Pink Panther with the bit about Keegan-Michael Key playing a manservant who is constantly attacking James Franco to test his defenses you weren’t wrong. In fact, Why Him? attempts to make that part of the joke, with Cranston quick to point out the Pink Panther similarities the first time he’s exposed to this bizarre little arrangement Michael-Key and Franco have going. However, neither Michael Key nor Franco’s characters have seen Pink Panther, leaving an exasperated Cranston struggling to explain how this is just like that thing that was in that other movie.
It’s a scene which drags on too long and elicited zero laughs at my screening. It also perfectly plays into The Nerdwriter recent video essay “The Epidemic Of Passable Movies” which argued, in part, “When passable movies observe human experience it’s not through the lens of real life but through the lens of other movies.”
3. Listen to who laughs at the bukkake joke and who doesn’t and picture the drive home ahead of them
While attempting to bond with his presumptive future father-in-law Cranston, Franco uses the word “bukkake” in passing in conversation. He’s talking about some failed titles for his next big app, but when Cranston asks what “bukkake” means Franco stammers before broadly explaining, “It means when you’ve got a lot in the air, a lot of things coming at you at once.”
Of course, that’s not what “bukkake” means, and the film later reveals as much, humiliating Cranston when he uses “bukkake” in a social setting only to be quickly told the word’s true meaning. It’s an Asian porn thing. Probably best not to Google it.
The funniest thing about this joke is not the gap in knowledge between the characters on screen but instead the obvious gap in knowledge among audience members. At my nearly sold-out showing last night, a handful of older guys laughed instantly at the utterance of the word “bukkake” and kept it going once they heard Franco’s misleading definition. As far as I could tell, not a single woman was laughing with them. That might make for an unfair generalization. However, it amused me to picture these men as being there with girlfriends or wives, and having to answer, “So, how did you know what ‘bukkake’ meant?” on the drive home.
4. Imagine an alternative telling of the story where Zoey Deutch is the bad guy, aka, the Teri Polo in Meet the Parents Problem
Why Him? is in some ways Meet the Parents in reverse, flipping the script form Ben Stiller (one of Why Him?’s executive producers, btw) meeting his quirky future in-laws for the first time to Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally meeting their daughter’s crazy new boyfriend for the first time. Both films largely revolve around the inevitably tense relationship between the daughter’s father and her boyfriend, and the demands of the ever-escalating plot dictate that the daughter be kind of a terrible person. Not terrible in a she regularly punches puppies and kicks dirt on homeless people kind of way; more that she consistently fails to prepare her loved ones for the insanity awaiting them and then is far too impatient with their flustered reactions.
In Why Him?, these are some of the things Deutch fails to prepare her family for:
- They’re not staying at a hotel (one which her father booked and negotiated down to a reasonable rate) during their visit but instead with her boyfriend.
- Her boyfriend is a tech mogul millionaire with daddy issues and a chronic inability to censor himself.
- He has a manservant/financial manager who consistently attacks him.
- His mansion is completely paperless, meaning it has experimental Japanese toilets with no toilet paper.
- The mansion is run by a disembodied AI voice which sounds like Kaley Cuoco.
- The food in the mansion is usually served by celebrity chefs, and is often highly experimental (and rarely solid).
- She’s been dating her boyfriend far longer than she let on.
- Also, the relationship is already far more serious than she let one. They more or less live together.
- Her boyfriend regularly throws lavish parties overflowing with experimental drugs and attended by other tech moguls whose internet start-ups are directly responsible for the death of many manufacturing jobs which are central to Cranston’s business.
- [MAJOR SPOILER] She’s dropping out of Stanford to be Melinda to Franco’s Bill Gates, running a non-profit charity organization focused on women’s health around the world
You can forgive Cranston for needing a damn minute to adjust. To be fair, Why Him?’s script features multiple built-in explanations and rationalizations (e.g., she didn’t know how to properly prepare them for how weird Franco is, she didn’t want them Googling him beforehand and jumping to conclusions). Still, a heads up on a couple of the other things would have been nice, but then there’d be no movie or at least a very different one.
5. Allow your hatred of Kaley Cuoco to grow
I don’t hate Cuoco; I envy her. She’s 31, and she’s worth $45 million, almost all of that coming from playing a hot airhead prone to funny facial expressions on Big Bang Theory, a show which has in recent seasons transformed her character Penny into more of a stereotypical sitcom wife. Cuoco’s simply living the dream of every actor of the 80s and 90s, i.e., land a long-running sitcom which you can practically sleepwalk your way through and sets you up for the rest of your life. Big Bang Theory happens to be the last of those old giants, a relic of a bygone era in TV history. Cuoco’s also done a movie here or there (e.g., Hop, Wedding Ringer), but much like Jennifer Aniston during the Friends years Cuoco’s movies see her mostly playing a slightly different version of Penny.
As such, maybe Why Him? gives Cuoco the role she’s best suited for: herself, since she typically comes across as being quite similar to Penny. Technically, Cuoco simply voices the AI interface named Justine which runs Franco’s house, as some kind of riff on Her except instead of Scarlet Johansson this AI sounds like Cuoco because that’s who Franco paid to provide the voice when the AI was first being put together. It’s one of the film’s many jokes about Franco’s Scrooge McDuck-style wealth, but it also feels annoyingly like a Cuoco ego stroke, particularly when Justine chafes at Cranston’s lack of respect for Cuoco’s status as a big star and in response humble brags “Only make a million an episode, most watched comedy on TV. No big deal.” Ugh. Then try to figure out if Cuoco’s salary for this little Why Him? voice acting gig was six or seven figures long and allow your hatred/envy to grow.
6. Ponder what the film says to Middle America
Generational, cultural and family conflicts abound in Why Him?, where part of Cranston’s inability to accept Franco as suitable suitor for his daughter is due to the culture clash between the two, the former a hard-working Michigan man in charge of a paper supply company being made obsolete by technology and the latter a thirtysomething computer whiz in California who hit big with one app and now lives a life of almost grotesque wealth and excess. Both feel like rough approximations by Hollywood screenwriters of what they assume life is like in Michigan (e.g., cold, everyone always fearing for their jobs, go Lions) compared to a more cartoon-like version of California, and the pie-in-the-sky conclusion they reach attempts to broadly marry the resources of Silicon Valley (its money) with the man power of the Midwest. Major spoiler: Franco’s money saves the day, and the paper company is converted into a specialized toilet manufacturer (rather than simply contracting with the actual Japanese manufacturer of the original toilet) which also works with Deutch’s new non-profit initiative for global health somehow.
I wonder what that might say to a Donald Trump voter. Good that they kept the manufacturing jobs in state and in country, but bad that it suggests salvation lies within the deep pocketbooks of well-invested Silicon Valley types?
7. Keep a running tally of all the product placement, and decide which one’s the most blatant about it
Here’s a start on some of the product placement: Apple, Netflix, Goodwill, Subway. Pretty much every single outfit worn by Zoey Deutch.
Most blatant: Netflix. Maybe this really was just their own joke and Netflix had nothing to do with it, but the opening minutes of the film are so stuffed with Franco raving about Netflix Original shows (“Stranger Things! Kimmy Schmidt!”) he might “watch” while Netflix and Chilling with his girlfriend that it makes you want to simply walk out and go home to watch one of those shows instead.