If the new Christmas season comedy “Why Him?” looks familiar, perhaps it will help to remember that filmmaker John Hamburg co-wrote the extremely popular garbage “Meet the Parents” and its sequels, and directed the moderately popular garbage “Along Came Polly.”
Yes, it’s the return of the “uptight square-versus-aggravating free spirit” comedy, which pits together two characters of such narrow extremes that they no longer resemble anything from life.
“Why Him?” has Bryan Cranston as the uptight square, Ned Fleming, who runs a failing printing business. If, at the end of Cranston’s run on “Breaking Bad,” we all wondered whether he’d ever find a movie role as good as Walter White, this one is cause to shake our heads sadly.
And yet, unlike uptight square Ben Stiller in the earlier movies, Cranston comes into this one with a little dignity. In spite of whatever dialogue he’s given or whatever forced physical situation he’s placed into, he knows how to stop the show with a well-placed reaction shot.
In the “aggravating free spirit role,” James Franco is merely an unfiltered, loony love machine. He never deliberately tries to annoy anyone. He’s just trying to be lovable, to be loved. He’s like a tamer version of his madcap “Spring Breakers” character.
Franco plays internet millionaire Laird Mayhew, who loves the Fleming daughter, Steph (Zoey Deutch), and plans to marry her. He invites her family to his Northern California mansion for Christmas, where he hopes to bond with Ned and get his blessing.
Of course, it begins with thick, forced, awkward humor, ranging from strange food and characters stuck in unusual bathroom situations, to the unfortunate misunderstanding of a certain sexual slang word, to — the kicker — a glass tank full of moose urine. How long do you suppose that tank will remain unbroken?
Though Ms. Deutch (the daughter of Lea Thompson) was weirdly left out of the promotional advertising, she gets a small moment of female empowerment at the end.
Other supporting characters, however, behave only in relation to the characters around them, including Griffin Gluck as the youngest Fleming, Cedric the Entertainer as Ned’s co-worker, and Keegan-Michael Key with a weird German accent.
Meanwhile, Jonah Hill, credited with conceiving the story (with director John Hamburg and Ian Helfer) seems to have wisely exited himself from the production.
Yet Megan Mullally as Barb Fleming works hard and, every so often, earns a giggle. Her moments, as with Cranston and Franco’s best scenes, come from moments of humanity, moments that are recognizable as human foibles, frailties and failings.
For genuine laughs, all the moose urine in the world can’t beat that.
Two and a half stars
Starring Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally
Written by John Hamburg, Ian Helfer
Directed by John Hamburg
Running time 1 hour 51 minutes