Sheer talent can occasionally help elevate familiar material, and so it is with “Why Him?,” a completely ordinary but sporadically funny comedy, which – as a holiday movie option – passes the “Why not?” test, thanks primarily to its pairing of Bryan Cranston and James Franco.
Cranston plays Ned Fleming, who runs an ailing printing business in Michigan, and travels to California for the holidays to visit his daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), a student at Stanford. Yet Ned soon discovers that his pride and joy is actually shacking up with an eccentric 32-year-old mogul, Laird (Franco), who is as foul-mouthed as he is free-wheeling.
Laird’s colorful, wealth-flaunting Silicon Valley antics alarm Ned more than anyone else, including his wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and especially their teenage son (Griffin Gluck), who is completely wowed by Laird’s siren song. The game, of course, is to see how long – and outlandishly – director John Hamburg can tease that out before everyone violates the “Seinfeld” “No hugging, no learning” rule.
As it turns out, pretty long. Part of that has to do with the generational aspects of the feud, since Ned runs a paper-driven business, which Laird and his tech-oriented pals laugh off as something akin to selling buggy whips. Laird and his personal valet (a very funny Keegan-Michael Key, of Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele”) even operate a paper-free house, which results in rather adventuresome trips to the bathroom.
Granted, toilet gags are the comedic equivalent of stooping to conquer, but “Why Him?” (which counts Jonah Hill and Ben Stiller among its long roster of producers) mostly makes it work, coming across as a sort of cheerfully rude, exaggerated take on a dad thinking nobody’s good enough for his little girl.
Strictly as a matter of casting, it’s also a reminder that Cranston – after his descent into the dark side in “Breaking Bad” – possesses a gift for screwball comedy dating back to his “Malcolm in the Middle” days, while Franco has an image-spoofing knack for playing creepy and weird.
As a matter of timing, there’s also perhaps something to be said for an alternative to the mix of blockbusters and Oscar bait hitting multiplexes as the year comes to a close. While “Why Him?” doesn’t necessarily offer a whole lot to love, in terms of spending 110 care-free minutes with these characters, it’s easy enough to like.
“Why Him?” opens December 23 in the U.S. It’s rated R.