Every generation gets the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” that speaks most trenchantly to the evolving cultural issues of our time. Apparently, ours is “Why Him?” where the young suitor isn’t racially other, but from a completely different planet when it comes to culture, values and social norms. That planet? Silicon Valley.
In “Why Him?,” directed by John Hamburg, written by Hamburg, Ian Helfer and Jonah Hill, Stanford senior Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), invites her tight-knit Michigan family to spend Christmas with her boyfriend, Laird (James Franco). It’s only appropriate, seeing as their first introduction to the man was his unexpected naked rear on their video chat screen at dad Ned’s (Bryan Cranston) birthday celebration. And when the Flemings land in the Bay Area, they’re in for a cultural odyssey they could never have expected.
“Why Him?” is probably the best send up of contemporary California tech culture to date. There’s the yoga, the fussy food (Laird practices “lawn-to-table” cuisine with the help of “Top Chef” Richard Blais), the pretentious art (a moose suspended in its own urine), the celebrity, the wealth, the tank tops, for crying out loud. When we see these cultures clash, it’s clear that #Calexit has already happened — it might as well be a foreign country for all the toilet mishaps and communication misunderstandings that take place.
There’s fun to be had in watching the Flemings go Cali, as mom Barb (Megan Mullally) learns about vaping and twerking and tween son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) takes up code and a slouchy beanie. Cranston, ever the fuddy duddy crank, as Ned, is more resistant. Threatened by Laird’s off-putting lack of filter and peculiar ways, he staunchly refuses to give his blessing.
Franco is quite funny in his uniquely laid-back way as the computer nerd who never quite figured out how to interact with a family. While his initial forthrightness tends toward the TMI, he’s refreshingly honest and endearingly vulnerable. His tribe is made up of Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key), his combination concierge, trainer and best friend, whose German accent wavers into Jamaican territory at times. He’s also hired Kaley Cuoco — the girl from ‘Big Bang Theory’!” he exclaims — to voice Justine, the all-seeing, all-knowing smart house entity whose helpfulness verges on the intrusive.
In that vein, there are opportunities to explore how technology goes wrong, but “Why Him?” is far more about how the culture of tech is wacky; in this world, tech is good, tech has the power and money to save Middle American manufacturing companies and keep jobs right here in the U.S. of A. If a little privatized surveillance comes along with it, so be it.
The biggest problem with “Why Him?” though, isn’t him, it’s her. Stephanie is so underwritten, that though these men are competing ruthlessly over her, she drops out of the story completely. She’s the center of attention, but she’s a void. That’s not the fault of the winsome Deutch, it’s that the writers haven’t fleshed out her character, and she only has two modes, either bratty or exasperated, in which to work. It’s difficult to empathize with her, so we latch on to the kooky Laird and stern Ned, whose rivalry the film revolves around. In true Hollywood fashion, they get hims right, but not her.
Rated: R for strong language and sexual material throughout. Starring: Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch. Director: John Hamburg. Running time: 111 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.