' ' Cinema Romantico: Why Him?

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Why Him?

Director John Hamburg’s “Why Him?” suggests a narratively inverted “Meet the Parents”, which Hamburg wrote, told from the perspective of the father-in-law, Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston), though in this case the prospective son-in-law is not a hapless nurse but an eccentric dot com millionaire, Laird Mayhew, played by James Franco, which is nimble casting considering how so many have turned on the straining-to-be-eccentric Franco, and how most everyone long ago turned on dot com millionaires. And so Franco welcoming that hate, rather than trying to ward it off, with a persistent, occasionally irritating, gleam in his eye puts you in Ned’s shoes from the start. Laird is dating Ned’s daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), a few semesters shy of graduating from Stanford, and not so much Daddy’s Little Girl as an Independent Woman Who Daddy Thinks Is Still His Little Girl. She doesn’t exactly have agency because she spends much of the film on the sideline as Ned and Laird tango over whether or not she should be proposed to, but she is allowed to reclaim her agency in the end, thank God, as if everything that came before was superfluous. Indeed, there is another scene where Stephanie and her mother Barb (Megan Mullally, given a fair amount to do if you nevertheless wish she got to do more) advise Ned they kept a secret from him for his own emotional safety. And in that instant you sense a whole movie where these two women observe the predictable hijinks from afar, shaking their heads, calling out the clockwork twists before they happen.

You might wonder, couldn’t we watch that movie instead of another in a long line of wacky, or pseudo-wacky, comedies about buttoned up fathers forced to confront their prospective anything-goes sons-in-law that must faithfully observe the time-honored Chekhov’s Moose Tank, stipulating that if a glass tank filled with moose urine is seen in the beginning then it must shatter before the end? I am receptive to that argument. Still, I confess to enjoying Cranston’s performance as not merely a tightly wound man but a tightly wound Midwesterner, a crucial distinction, introduced as owner of a printer company in Michigan barely getting by that is suddenly thrown out of balance when he arrives in a Left Coast environment existing entirely outside the box, where dinners are not so amply proportioned and comprised partially of edible paper and the people, to paraphrase an old Garrison Keillor line, are looking for a lot more eye contact than Ned is used to.

Sure, you have seen such fish out of water shenanigans before, but Cranston nevertheless invests them with comical urgency, particularly through facial contortions evoking the facial putty of George C. Scott in “Dr. Strangelove”, a comparison I do not employ lightly selling nearly every single bit with squints and sighs and double takes. His stiff body language, meanwhile, consistently mirrors the blazer, sweater, tie ensemble he sports to Laird’s big Christmas soiree, and underlines an attitudinal inflexibility that his surroundings are trying really hard to bend, never more so than an unfortunate voyage to the bathroom where, uh, simple manual sanitation has been phased out in the name of technological efficiency, which eventually yields to an invasion of Ned’s privacy in the most prominent place that no reserved Midwestern male, I assure you, wants his privacy compromised.

That is not the only thing compromised in “Why Him?” as Ned is also forced to grapple with his beloved business’s death rattle in age where the tangibility of printing paper has given way to abstruse smart home monitoring systems with a voice where there is no person. Ned cannot quite wrap his mind around these details, an aging man who suddenly finds himself discomfited by the modern world, hanging on by a thread that Cranston lends great comic desperation. You only wish the script surrounding him had done the same, relying more and more on rote hijinks the further the movie goes, like Ned awkwardly, unintentionally finding himself in the same room as his daughter and her boyfriend at a particularly delicate moment or the hopelessly stale subplot of Ned trying to hack Laird to get compromising information to bust up the relationship.

Laird and Stephanie’s relationship, really, is just the hoary convention Hamburg utilizes as a means to put a middle-aged man in present day America through the wringer of impending irrelevance, which is a tantalizingly idea, given the surrounding cultural landscape, to really extract Ned’s fear and resentment, both of which you catch in glimpses. Alas, this was a Christmas release and so all manner of plot pyrotechnics are summoned to ensure that forgiveness and goodwill ultimately trump fear and resentment. Still, in the machinated wrap-up there emerges the notion of Ned willingly relinquishing his self-appointed wise elder position to the youth movement. Maybe kids know best.


mercatiwriter@aol.com said...

Love it.
Love Moose Tank reference.

Unknown said...

I thought they totally nailed the Midwestern thing and was delighted. Also, the part where Cranston is trying to make a Pink Panther reference is A+++

Nick Prigge said...

The first scene of the two of them fighting, I thought to myself, before Cranston said it, I swear, "Wait, this is 'A Shot in the Dark.'" And that perhaps explains why I saw where he was coming from.