WHY HIM?

Producer: Dan Levine, Shawn Levy, Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill
Director: John Hamburg
Writer: John Hamburg and Ian Helfer
Stars: James Franco, Bryan Cranston, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Griffin Gluck, Keegan-Michael Key, Adam DeVine, Kaley Cuoco and Steve Aoki
Studio: Twentieth Century-Fox

C-

Meeting prospective in-laws has probably been fodder for comedies since the time of Aristophanes, but the cliché can still strike a chord if delivered with some cleverness—witness “La Cage aux Folles” (though not the mediocre English-language remake) or “The In-Laws” (again the original, not its equally mediocre remake). But “Why Him?” is simply dumb, a feeble string of raucous slapstick sequences, embarrassing scatological gags and cheap sexual jokes that lead inevitably to a blandly sweet, and totally bogus, conclusion. The determinedly R-rated contraption is bound to represent yet another setback in Bryan Cranston’s attempt to forge a big-screen career after his triumphs on television and the stage.

The premise has Cranston playing Ned Fleming, an Ohio guy so old-fashioned that he’s trying to keep a traditional printing business afloat, with little success in the digital age. His daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) is studying at Stanford, and surprises him via Skype at his company birthday bash by asking him to come to California with mom Barb (Megan Mullally) and younger bro Scotty (Griffin Gluck) to celebrate Christmas with her and her boyfriend Laird Mayhew (James Franco). Unfortunately Laird makes an impromptu appearance during the conversation that makes everybody blush.

Laird turns out to be not the penniless slacker one might expect. Sure, he’s an oversexed free spirit with New Agey ideas and an oppressive need to bond, but he’s also an extraordinarily rich video-game mogul, with a palatial estate filled with expensive, if highly suggestive, artwork and a small army of staff—including famous chefs and a steward named Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) who runs the household and sternly advises his employer how to control his outlandish behavior to win over his houseguests. Laird is a typical Franco creation—a leering, rather obnoxious frat-boy-style dude—but he’s also supposed to be lovably oblivious to convention (there are allusions to an unhappy childhood behind the self-made man) and intent on helping others. Presumably that’s what so attracts Stephanie, though the character is drawn so sketchily that it’s hard to tell: she’s pretty much a cipher here.

That’s because the emphasis is on the effort of Laird to win over Ned, his polar opposite, in order to get a father’s blessing to marry his daughter (who, to make matters worse, announces her intention to drop out of school and run Laird’s foundation). What follows is a chain of humiliations for the poor dad—the most protracted one involving a modernistic Japanese toilet in Laird’s paperless mansion—even as the other members of the family grow increasingly enamored of their goofy host. To be fair, writer-director John Hamburg and co-scripter Ian Helfer do try to throw a couple of curves into the mix, most notably a gag about Gustav attacking Laird randomly to improve his physical prowess, a practice that Ned, like the audience, naturally connects with the “Pink Panther” movies, only to find that neither Laird nor Gustav admits familiarity with them. But it’s a joke that falls flat.

So too do the interjections about Ned’s desperate attempts to keep his business back home from going under while using its antediluvian computer resources to hack into Laird’s files. The latter thread, which features Zack Pearlman flailing about as his head of cyberwarfare, is dismal, but even worse is the waste of Cedric the Entertainer as his Ned’s closest pal in the company. He’s such a naturally funny man that it’s dispiriting to see him reduced to playing a drab straight-man.

It’s equally depressing to watch Cranston, under Hamburg’s heavy hand, trying to wring laughs out of pained grimaces and groans. Franco is obviously having fun playing the good-natured bad boy, but frankly the part doesn’t suit him perfectly; perhaps it’s the memory of the unsavory characters he’s played in the past, but there’s the whiff or the seamy, even sinister, about him, and even in the big finale back in Ohio—where Laird shows up to win Ned’s approval no matter what (and brings some “very special guests” with him)—his smirking comes off less as ingratiating than as faintly menacing. (Franco seems to know it, however, and practically winks at the audience in recognition of that persona.) Like Cranston, Mullally is forced to extremes in an effort to extract some laughs in bedroom scenes between Barb and Ned, while both Deutch and Gluck struggle vainly to inject some enthusiasm into what are rote roles. Adam DeVine shows up in a cameo that reinforces the poor impression he made in “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.” The guy who emerges as the scene-stealer, in fact, is Key, but even he can’t keep Gustav amusing for the entire running-time. As is usual with these raunchy farces, the movie is technically proficient—production designer Matthew Holt deserves recognition for contriving some of Laird’s more outrageous choices in bric-a-brac, and Kris Kachikis’ cinematography is appropriately bright.

Nonetheless, the movie is yet another of this year’s Christmas comedies that’s likely to leave you depressed rather than cheered. By the time you get halfway through “Why Him?” you’ll probably be asking “Why Me?”