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Review:  James Franco and Bryan Cranston comically clash in ‘Why Him?’ but something’s missing

‘Why Him?’
Bryan Cranston, left, and James Franco in the movie “Why Him?”
(Scott Garfield / Twentieth Century Fox)

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 is 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 and written by Hamburg, Ian Helfer and Jonah Hill, Stanford University 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 sendup 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, fuddy-duddy crank Ned, is more resistant. Threatened by Laird’s peculiar ways and off-putting lack of filter, he staunchly refuses to give his blessing.

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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 includes Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key), his combination concierge, trainer and best friend, whose German accent wavers into Jamaican territory at times. Laird has 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 and 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 even 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. 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 the hims right but not her.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic. 

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‘Why Him?’

Rating: R, for strong language and sexual material throughout

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Playing: In general release

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