Do you long for a film that trenchantly critiques America’s economic inequities through the story of a strong female lead? If so, John Hamburg’s objectively terrible Why Him? is not for you. But just because a movie features a gratuitous KISS cameo, floods of moose urine, and a shirtcocking James Franco doesn’t mean it has nothing to teach us about Our Great Nation.
Why Him’s premise is simple: curmudgeonly father Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston) must make peace with daughter Stephanie’s (Zoey Deutch) boyfriend, the obnoxious video game mogul Laird Mayhew (James Franco). To that end, Stephanie’s little brother Scotty (Griffin Gluck) and mother Barb (Megan Mullaly) accompany Ned on a Christmastime pilgrimage to Laird’s stately pleasure dome in Palo Alto. There, many ponderously off-color irritants (a recalcitrant Japanese toilet, a household surveillance tool voiced by Kaley Cuoco, the aforementioned moose urine) conspire to harden Ned’s heart against his potential son-in-law. The final straw is Ned’s discovery that Laird has convinced Stephanie to drop out of Stanford in order to helm a Gates-style humanitarian foundation sponsored by him, Laird. All seems lost—until (spoiler alert!) Laird uses his free-flowing tech cash to buy Ned’s struggling business. The Mayhew-Flemings live happily ever after. Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!
At first glance, Why Him? seems like the latest addition to the class of unfunny, star-studded comedies Americans use every holiday season to soothe the howling void within. Do not be fooled! Tired though its poop jokes may be, this movie techcrunchdisrupts the palliative, if retrograde, formula of previous genre classics to deliver a bracing shot of Trumpian cynicism.
Though Why Him? shares a screenwriter with Meet the Parents, its underlying themes run much closer to the venerable Father of the Bride franchise. Like the 1950 original and Steve Martin’s 1991 remake, Why Him? briefly masquerades as a father-daughter relationship drama before turning to its true focus: intergenerational economic conflict.
In 1950, the titular father (Spencer Tracy) was a wealthy lawyer and the fiancé an upstart business owner; by 1991, it is the father who owns a business, while the fiancé has the nebulous job title “independent communications consultant.” In 1991 as in 1950, the father grumbles his way through an economic changing of the guard that culminates in the sumptuous wedding he provides for his daughter and the rising alpha. Once the symbolic transfer of wealth is complete and the feminine prize allotted, the conflict subsides, leaving the participants emotionally altered but economically static: Spencer Tracy keeps on making bank at his law firm, while Steve Martin continues to manage his successful sneaker factory.
In Why Him?, the economic baton is not so much passed as cruelly wrested and used as a cudgel against its original holder. Whereas the Father of the Bride films centered on a relatively peaceful succession of generations, Hamburg’s update predicates the arrival of the new order on the wholesale destruction of the old. The bride herself, now absent from the title, is relegated to the sidelines even as she pays lip service to the feminist ideal of free choice. Her development takes a backseat to the epic battle between the movie’s male protagonists, Ned and Laird.
Ned would have fit right in with the family from the 1991 Father of the Bride, but by 2016, he is a pathetic anachronism. Head of a floundering print advertising company, he is also a peevish technophobe with a pronounced hostility to the mores of Kids Today (e.g. bukakke, if we believe Hamburg). Even as the buttoned-up Barb warms up to Laird, Ned stands mulishly in the way of technological and social progress. He forbids Stephanie from dropping out of college, demands Scotty avoid swearing, and initially resists Laird’s buyout of his company. Hamburg portrays Ned’s scrupulous (if rigid) observance of the social contract as laughably quaint, as useless as the paper brochures he peddles back in Michigan. If he has any value at all, it’s as a dispenser of gimmicky dad-isms that mark him as entertainingly “old-school.”
Laird, by contrast, is a Man of the Future. Casual, smiling, and partial to flowing caftans slitted to the hip, he is as comfortable in his liberally tattooed skin as Ned is cowering and clumsy. Though he dropped out of high school, Laird doesn’t sweat it, bro, creating a lucrative video-game empire by his early twenties. Barb adjuncts at a community college and Stephanie attends Stanford, but in Laird’s world, summa cum laude MIT graduates are indebted suckers whose only conceivable function is to groom his llamas. Laird is explicit in his Peter Thiel-esque disdain for formal education, advising both Scotty and Stephanie to skip out on college in exchange for what he calls “a seat at the table.” Laird’s vast wealth also enables other forms of anti-institutionalism: his estate is an exemplar of tech homesteader Juche, complete with its own agricultural infrastructure and security apparatus. As Laird’s vaguely Teutonic butler (Keegan-Michael Key) explains, the household is entirely “paperless,” except for the edible paper the chef serves up for dinner. In typical heavy-handed fashion, Why Him? shows us how Laird’s lifestyle choices have rendered the very substrate of Ned’s profession obsolete.
Laird seems entirely self-sufficient yet he treats the Flemings with puppyish admiration because, as he says, his own parents were neglectful. His deprived upbringing leaves him incapable of reading social cues, keeping secrets, and not shouting “MOTHERFUCKER!!!” every ten seconds. His ignorance and provincialism are so profound that he regards Ned’s platitudes (“what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) as revelatory pearls of wisdom. Not that adult guidance could change Laird’s outlandish behavior; like the octopus (literal and metaphorical) to which Ned compares him, he is determined to get his druthers by any means necessary.
Though Laird systematically humiliates Ned by refusing to respect his boundaries and undermining his authority with each Fleming in turn, he cements his good guy chops by saving his company from bankruptcy. After Ned’s last remaining clients decide to “move all their printing to China,” Laird simply buys him out. What ensues could have come directly from Donald Trump’s dream journal: having reinvented the erstwhile printing company as a maker of Japanese smart toilets, Laird insists they be produced on American soil. This move effectively repatriates American manufacturing through an alliance with tech while assuring the Fleming children lifelong employment. Scotty gets promoted to an improbably authoritative position, his youthful enthusiasm finally drowning out his father’s fuddy-duddy bumbling. Stephanie’s new task, meanwhile, is to bring the glory of Japanese-American toilet culture to the benighted masses of the “Third World.”
Stephanie, all but absent during the penis-jousting that occupies the bulk of the film, reemerges at its conclusion. Her fate epitomizes the “jocular contempt for women” that will shortly determine US domestic policy. Styled as a high-powered go-getter with a taste for nonprofit work, Stephanie in fact does little more than play Melinda to Laird’s Bill. She refuses Laird’s offer of marriage, crisply admonishing her father and boyfriend for treating her like “property” to be passed back and forth. Having made this declaration, however, she heads up the charity arm of Laird and Ned’s new venture, embodying the traditional female values of compassion and purity while promoting Laird’s patronizing tech-based neo-colonialism. By remaining with Laird but not marrying him and pursuing her charity work while staying in school “for herself,” she manages the impossible task of pleasing all the men in her life. Even as it mocks the values of the past, Why Him? advocates a return to simpler times, when women helped their flawed but good-hearted male protectors make toilets great again.
Maya Vinokour is an academic and translator based in New York.