Now that he’s a “serious” Emmy-winning actor, it’s easy to forget Bryan Cranston first gained fame for his zany comedic skills. In his breakout role on TV’s “Malcolm in the Middle,” Cranston was willing to do anything the gig required — as when he was covered in a suit of 10,000 bees.
The “Breaking Bad” star returns to this atmosphere of wacky humiliation in “Why Him?,” a raunchy comedy boasting marquee names and gratuitous cameos. Cranston does what he can to drive the story forward, even as the film’s good ideas spin out of control.
He plays Ned Fleming, the owner of a Michigan printing company that is struggling in an increasingly paperless world. When his undergrad daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) invites Ned, wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and teen son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) to spend Christmas break with her in San Jose, they are surprised to learn she has a steady boyfriend.
But not just any boyfriend.
Laird (James Franco in “Spring Breakers” mode) is a famed tech mogul known for creating the Guerilla Gang video game series. His compound is overrun with exotic animals, garish décor and Silicon Valley luxuries.
“Are you sure this isn’t an Apple store?” Scotty asks when viewing Laird’s house for the first time.
Laird is also an unfiltered mess. He greets the family tattooed and shirtless. He uses profanities the same way most people use pronouns.
Ned, of course, can’t stand the guy — especially upon discovering this goofball intends to propose to Stephanie.
“You think you’re at war with Laird, but he’s not fighting,” Barb warns her husband.
As the Flemings move into Laird’s estate for the weekend, they must navigate his outsider art and insider tech gadgets (such as an A.I. assistant programmed with the voice of TV’s Kaley Cuoco). Meanwhile, the host tries to win their acceptance.
“Why Him?” plays like a version of “Meet the Parents” as seen from the older man’s viewpoint. Not a bad idea on paper, considering director John Hamburg was one of the writers on “Parents” and its sequels. But flipping the perspective doesn’t work so smoothly in application. It’s somehow more universally relatable to be intimidated by your potential father-in-law than to be revolted by your potential son-in-law. Or it’s simply funnier.
Hamburg (who directed the superior “I Love You, Man”) establishes his R-rated approach with a Facetiming bit that devolves into unwanted nudity, followed up with relentless vulgarity. Would even the most clueless idiot on the planet imagine it’s a good idea when meeting a girlfriend’s family to inquire, “What’s your favorite cuss word?”
For a while, the screenplay (co-written by actors Jonah Hill and Ian Helfer) proves unnervingly weird enough to hold your interest. When Ned gets stuck on a prototype Japanese toilet in a paperless household (oh, the irony) he faces one lingering indignity after another. This worsens once Laird’s right-hand man (Keegan-Michael Key) is forced to manually reboot the system.
Likewise, Mullally provides a clinic in how to deliver a punch line, converting a thankless “wife role” into something formidable. That is until her character is pretty much abandoned in the third act.
Then the film devolves into seen-it-coming gross-out gags. If there’s a dead moose covered in urine as part of a glassed-in art installation, what are the odds someone’s going to shatter that glass? “Why Him?” makes that gag even more gag-inducing.
And it wouldn’t be a James Franco project without wanton celebrity cameos. Note to filmmakers: If the movie’s climax relies on conning your famous friends to make an appearance, it might be better to shift those funds toward a rewrite. Just ask Judd Apatow.
There are too many times viewers will ask “why me?” during “Why Him?”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R. Time: 1:51.