By now, James Franco has been cast as more flakes, stoners, and smiley scoundrels than you can count, and there’s a reason: He’s peerless at playing them. In “Why Him?,” a state-of-the-art case of a dumb, obvious concept comedy made in a smart, clever way, Bryan Cranston is the fuddy-duddy dad who learns that his beloved daughter, who is nearing the end of her four years at Stanford, is dating a dude who’s a vintage Franco prankster of outrage. Except that in this case, he’s not just another ne’er-do-well with a blissed-out idiot grin. He’s a Silicon Valley whiz kid — a wealthy and famous video-game inventor. So even though his personality is a goof, the joke carries a satirical kick. Franco gets more than a few chuckles out of playing a narcissist bro of the moment.
When Ned Fleming (Cranston) and his wife, Barb (Megan Mullally), show up at the remote, barricaded wood-and-glass Palo Alto mansion where they’ve been asked to spend Christmas with their daughter, Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), and her new boyfriend, Franco’s Laird Mayhew, they’re met by their worst nightmare: Franco greets them as a shirtless tattooed party boy who can’t stop dropping F-bombs. On top of that, he’s so unctuously friendly that he acts like he’s been part of their family for 10 years. He has tattooed their Christmas-card photo across his back and, in Ned’s honor, has built them a bowling alley; he flirts with Barb so intently (and effectively) that you start to think he means it. He’s a moonstruck manipulator who’s going to swaddle them in good vibes even if it kills them.
Right away, we recognize that we’re in the pest-who-can-do-no-wrong genre, that time-honored situational comedy form in which a flagrantly annoying character seems to have been placed on earth to torment an uptight straight-arrow (in this case, Cranston’s Middle American patriarch geek). The key annoyance, of course, is that everyone else just seems to love the guy. The genre goes back to the ’60s sitcom “Green Acres” (where a whole town of fruitcakes addled poor Mr. Douglas) and to movies like “What About Bob?,” which gave Bill Murray one of his catchiest roles.
The hook of “Why Him?” is that, as Laird himself might put it, he’s not just clownin’. Yes, he’s a doof with no filter, and his mansion is stocked with preposterous works of art, most of which depict animals fornicating (there’s also an aquarium with a dead moose suspended in its own urine). But he’s also a scamp who talks in a hilariously glib brand of corporate hip-hop bro-speak. Franco makes Laird a huggy New Age explorer, a frat-house jester, and a digital-age dick all at the same time. He may be a walking cartoon, but he’s not too ridiculous to possess a major ego. Laird tells Ned that he wants to marry Stephanie, and the joke is that Laird, like Franco’s flipped-out gangsta sociopath in “Spring Breakers,” is a takeoff on the world that’s coming (or is maybe already here).
That’s the reason he drives Cranston’s character nuts. Ned is in the printing business; he’s literally a paper-pusher. He’s a stodgy analog dinosaur whose company is doing a slow-motion crash and burn, a fact that he’s trying to keep hidden from his wife, and the days that he spends at Laird’s house are his introduction to the new world — which Laird, of course, nudges to extremes. It’s a paperless house, which means that Ned must negotiate an electronic Japanese toilet basin with a built-in spritzer: an excruciatingly extended bit of scatological farce that wouldn’t be out of place in an Adam Sandler comedy, except that Cranston acts the holy hell out of it. Some may say that he took a movie like this one for the paycheck, but I prefer to think that he also took it for the acting challenge: Could he humanize a concept-comedy stooge?
That’s the challenge Robert De Niro set for himself, and rose to, in the “Meet the Parents” films (though he, in effect, was playing the pest), and “Why Him?,” directed by the gifted John Hamburg (“I Love You, Man”), is a comedy on about that level of execution. It’s bluntly cheeky, it goes on for too long, but the concept keeps on giving. There are good nasty gags (about bukkake porn and motor-boating), the movie finds a nice place in its pop-nostalgia cosmos for a running homage to Kiss, and it’s hard to resist such gambits as Laird’s Austrian servant/therapist — played by Keegan-Michael Key as a cross between Cato and Dr. Ruth Westheimer — treating him as a borderline mental case, or his celebrity chef serving up nauseating dishes like edible soil and plankton foam, or Cranston’s priceless fumbling of the shorthand for “tattoo.” It’s Franco, though, with his crackpot deviousness, who holds the movie in the palm buzzer of his hand.