The writer-director of Why Him? talks his signature comedic style and the importance of a sense of place
by Madison Ford | December 20, 2016 1:30 pm
It’s been about six years since Hollywood multihyphenate (director, writer, producer, etc.) John Hamburg’s last cinematic portrayal of the hijinks—both emotional and physical—that define relationships with in-laws and extended families. But given his proclivity toward the subject matter (Hamburg penned all three films in the Meet The Parents trilogy, in addition to now classic comedies like Along Came Polly, Zoolander and Zoolander 2), it’s no surprise that family dynamics are front and center in his latest release, Why Him?, which stars Bryan Cranston and James Franco and hits theaters this Friday.
Watching Hamburg’s new movie expertly navigate roads his work has gone down before, one begins to wonder if the filmmaker has struggled with his own trouble in in-law paradise. “I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had traumatic experiences,” he assures with amused conviction. “[Only] good experiences.” Upon further discussion of Hamburg’s oeuvre, he reveals the common denominator among his films is not familial ties; it’s discomfort.
“As a comedy writer I like writing about awkward, tension-filled moments,” he says. “Whether it’s a guy making his first real guy friend in I Love You Man—awkward—or bringing somebody new into a family dynamic, like in Why Him?. Both [scenarios] are very writhe with tension.”
Why Him? sets an ideal stage for uncomfortable comedy, as Midwestern dad Ned Fleming (Cranston) travels with his family to Silicon Valley to meet his daughter’s eccentric—not to mention loaded—boyfriend, Laird Mayhew (Franco). The generational and financial gaps between the two are a strain on their ability to connect the way Laird so desperately wants. Hamburg says that his return to the subject of merging families was not due to familiarity, but rather his compulsion to explore what he saw as a shift in stereotypical relationships.
“In the years since making Meet the Parents, I’ve witnessed all these power dynamics shifting. You have an entire generation of younger people really becoming quite successful and making tons of money and doing cutting edge things. And it felt like they had all the power, whereas when I was growing up it felt like our parents had all the power.”
Hamburg’s distinct style weaves broad humor with smaller, blink-or-you-miss-them relatable moments. It’s these plausible absurdities that give Hamburg his true comedic power. “I’m preying on everybody’s fears,” he explains. “I don’t have sharks and stuff like that; I have a guy walking into a bathroom when you are conducting your business. But sometimes you do need certain bigger moments where you can have the entire theater laughing. I like to balance the smaller awkward moments with the bigger, more physical scenes, while always trying to make [both] real.”
In addition to uncomfortable encounters, a sense of place, or “home,” as it relates to one’s family is often de rigueur in Hamburg’s films. The stark change of scenery Cranston’s character experiences upon arriving in Silicon Valley is something Hamburg admittedly relates to: The native New Yorker still remembers his first visit to California as a ten year-old. But, unlike Ned Fleming’s, Hamburg says his was not nearly as big a shock to the system. “We went to Venice, in Los Angeles. I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ It was in the ‘80s, and everyone was on roller skates. I was like, ‘I want to live here.’”
In time, Hamburg made the move, and has since fully ingratiated himself into his West Coast home. Now firmly settled, the Why Him? writer-director shares his picks for the best L.A. has to offer, which should go a long way toward preventing any Ned Fleming-related culture shock among those who find themselves in the City of Angels.
Cup of Joe: Go Get ‘Em Tiger, on Larchmont Boulevard. The iced almond macadamia latte is ridiculous.
Power Lunch: Sticking with the theme, I have to say Larchmont Village Wine, Spirits & Cheese. They make the best sandwiches. I’m partial to #3: the Soppressata Salami, on a baguette. Delicious.
Cocktail Hour: The Varnish, a speakeasy in the back of Cole’s restaurant. You can’t go wrong with some kind of Manhattan variation. Or anything with tequila. Or gin (I’m not a rum guy).
Retail Therapy: OK the Store has the coolest jewelry, coffee-table books and little objects. It’s a wonderful place to spend large amounts of money in a short amount of time.
Field Trip: I love taking my five year-old daughter to the Natural History Museum. There is a case with live rats in the basement, which is great immersive therapy for a New Yorker with a terrible fear of that particular animal.
Date Night: I’m not a vegan but I love the food (and drinks) at the restaurant Crossroads. My favorite dish is the Scaloppini Parmesan. I have no idea what the hell is in it, but it tastes just like, well, veal—without the whole eating a calf thing.
Don’t Miss: Venice—from the canals, to the boardwalk, to Abbot Kinney Boulevard. I fell in love with the place on my first visit as a ten year-old. Maybe it was because the entire town put on roller stakes at sundown and started boogying (or at least that’s how I remember it from the ‘80s). I set a lot of my movie I Love You Man there, so it holds a special place in my heart.
Hidden Gem: It’s not so hidden, but Domaine LA, in a strip mall on Melrose Avenue, is my favorite wine store. The owner, Jill, puts together a relatively small selection of amazing bottles at good prices. Is this guide becoming all about drinking? I’m a writer-director of Hollywood movies. It can be stressful. Please don’t judge me.
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