Is John Hamburg a hack? If he is, he’s an awfully polite one; he writes and directs knockoffs seemingly by request of his talented stars, and usually sticks to ripping off his own work whenever possible. For example, after working on the screenplay for Meet The Parents, it’s certainly within his right to tinker with that story hook for the Ben Stiller-produced Why Him?. While the original Meet The Parents had Stiller playing a man desperate to impress his future in-laws but flailing thanks to a series of minor social lies interrogated by a suspicious, imposing father figure, Why Him? takes the point of view of old-fashioned dad Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston), and gives his prospective son-in-law, Laird Mayhew (James Franco), the opposite weakness: filter-free honesty. When Ned’s college-age daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) introduces her thirtysomething tech-millionaire boyfriend to Ned, her mom, Barb (Megan Mullally), and her teenage brother, Scotty (Griffin Gluck), at Laird’s California mansion, Laird can’t help but swear enthusiastically, refer to their healthy sex life, and show off the impulsive tattoo of the whole family he just got on his back.
This gag on its own is not evidence of hackery. It’s actually pretty funny, especially when Laird doesn’t realize that the tattoo artist modeled the images too closely on the Christmas card Laird provided as a sample and also tattooed “HAPPY HOLIDAYS” on the poor guy’s skin. Also funny is Laird’s promise to Stephanie to take it down a notch: “I won’t get any more tattoos of them while they’re here.” Hamburg is a capable comedy writer, having worked on some of the better mainstream Stiller comedies like the first Parents and Zoolander movies. But he also worked on the sequels to those movies, and directed the decidedly third-tier Stiller vehicle Along Came Polly; Hamburg thinks big, and broad, and about how the audience will love all of the zany concept characters he has in store for them.
He’s not always wrong; for every passel of lame characters like Ned’s wacky-pervy IT guy (Zack Pearlman) or Laird’s yelling-bro peer (a cameo-ing Adam Devine), there is a Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key), Laird’s manservant and best friend. It takes the movie a little while to reveal Gustav as (among other things) a knockoff of Kato from the Pink Panther series, attacking his employer without warning in order to keep his defenses sharp. It’s very silly but funny, and chased with the amusingly meta note that neither Laird nor Gustav have heard of the Pink Panther movies, whose shtick Ned recognizes immediately.
Hamburg springs some surprises, albeit secondhand ones. More often, he calls his shots from a mile away. This is the kind of movie where an early-on mention of the band KISS must result in a late-movie KISS karaoke performance, dress-up scene, and/or band appearance. Hamburg opts for the appearance, treating viewers of his madcap holiday comedy to the sight of Gene Simmons’ surly, hateful face. Beyond their predictability, the arrangement of the director’s setups and payoffs is often disjointed. Take the long, long scene where Pearlman’s IT guy walks Ned through the process of hacking into Laird’s computer, which leads to Ned eavesdropping on Stephanie and Laird during an intimate moment. The sequence escalates in awkward bursts, then just kind of stops on its gross-out discomfort.
Rather than engineering actual farce dependent on any visual comedy, Hamburg has his characters cower, yell, and/or cringe their way through awkward situations; even his sight gags, like the art Laird puts up in his home to impress the family, are supposed to be funny because they’re uncomfortable, not because of how Hamburg reveals or frames them. This kind of squirm-comedy works better in the more grounded milieu of Meet The Parents or a Judd Apatow production, which this one vaguely apes by hiring the ever-game Franco. (There’s also a Jonah Hill story credit.)
At least the movie’s overeager silliness can count on Key to liven things up. Why Him? takes a worse turn whenever the screenplay decides it has an emotional core—and that it emanates from the dudes, naturally. It’s not surprising but it is tedious to see a movie that supposedly turns on both a father-daughter relationship and a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship toss both of those aside for long periods so it can better tend to the father-boyfriend bond. Stephanie complains about this herself, but charming as Deutch is, mere onscreen complaints don’t lend her character any dimension. To the contrary, her bland declaration of independence adds in the condescending lesson that daughters and girlfriends are actually people, too. Whether funny or serious, Hamburg loves to tell the audience things they already know.