'Why Him?': James Franco sizzles with surreal weirdness

There’s a beautiful feral creature living inside James Franco. Demonic, impish, and totally deranged, it sometimes takes over the otherwise earnest actor-scholar's soul.

This foul-mouthed demon was unleashed in all its rabid splendor in Spring Breakers and made an unforgettable appearance in the North Korea satire The Interview.

It emerges again in Why Him?,  an enjoyable (but long) romcom that's like Meet the Parents on LSD, laced with rat poison. The movie opens Friday.

Franco plays Laird Mayhew, a grotesquely gregarious and heavily inked Silicon Valley software magnate. Zoey Deutch is Stephanie Fleming, his young and beloved girlfriend. Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally are her straightlaced Midwestern parents.

Cultures clash when they meet for Christmas. Boy, do they.

A let-it-all-hang-out slacker slob and layabout, Stephanie’s tech-millionaire beau exudes the bovine contentment cultivated so beautifully by some stoners, with an overlay of manic hyperactivity. He also has a yen for constructing long sentences composed entirely of four-letter words.

When the big day comes to meet the folks, Laird sends a chauffeur-driven luxury car to drive the Flemings to his modernist mansion – all shiny steel, glass, and marble. Laird greets them at the front door, topless, a loutish counterpoint to the magnificent building and grounds.

He tells them he has marked the occasion with a new tattoo, and turns around to reveal a massive tableau of the family inked across his back.

So begins a seriously strange string of jokes, sight gags, pratfalls, and curious character revelations as Laird welcomes the Flemings into his world.

Cowritten and directed by John Hamburg, who wrote Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, and Little Fockers, Franco's movie gleefully parodies that earlier franchise, along with classics like Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride and Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

It's a must-see for aficionados of Franco’s comedies, though I imagine it will feel like an insufferable obscenity to others – especially considering the 111-minute running time.

Hamburg errs by giving Franco far too much oxygen for his outsize antics. The star utterly dominates every frame, reducing even Cranston to a spectator.

Happily, Franco isn’t allowed to run entirely wild. Why Him? also features Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele, Keanu) in a major role as Gustav, Laird’s trusted estate manager, business adviser, martial arts instructor, helicopter pilot, and sommelier.

The only performer who manages to match Franco’s intensity, Key plays Gustav as a Euro-snob of indeterminate origins with a vaguely exotic accent that seems to change from scene to scene. It's his thankless job to translate Laird’s weird comments and crazy schemes for the hapless Flemings.

As unlikely as it sounds, Why Him? can be surprisingly sweet.

Despite his madcap stunts, Franco also manages to convey something of Laird’s deeply felt love for Stephanie, who's played charmingly by 22-year-old Deutch (Everybody Wants Some!!, Vampire Academy).

As his girlfriend tells her parents, Laird is honest to a fault – he speaks his mind without a filter. His passion for Stephanie is equally honest and true.

I think it’s not a spoiler to mention that Why Him? concludes with a heartfelt affirmation of true love.


Why Him?

Directed by John Hamburg. With Bryan Cranston, James Franco. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Running time: 1 hours, 51 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for strong language and sexual material throughout).

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