Starring: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas
Director: Andrew Jay Cohen
Running Time: 88 mins
Synopsis: Loving parents Scott and Kate Johnsen (Ferrell and Poehler) celebrate when they learn their daughter has got into a top college. But when her scholarship falls through they join forces with neighbour Frank (Mantzoukas) to open an underground casino in his house to help fund her tuition. Soon enough things get wildly out of control.
There are two saving graces to this woefully unfunny and instantly forgettable ‘comedy.’ One it has a mercifully brief running time, and two the dire nature of its quality should give way to a deluge of casino flavoured metaphors. Gems such as “No one wins in The House” or “The House deals a cruddy hand” or “Don’t bet on The House”, or for real crassness “The House Craps out.” There is certainly more entertainment to be found reading those than anything showcased here.
The concept certainly holds potential. Suffocating parents Scott and Kate are desperate to give their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins underplaying it nicely) the best start in life. Accepted into a prestigious albeit expensive college, which is being helpfully paid for by a local council scholarship. Unfortunately sneering council leader Bob, Nick Kroll-struggling with the material provided, decides that this is money the community just cannot afford no more. A plot point that could give the film a chance to make some sly social commentary about the financial extremities of higher education, but writer and first time director Andrew Jay Cohen does little with this, content to dive as quickly as possible into the two parents starting up their own casino. Hints are also made towards their fears that once their daughter leaves home, life will become stagnant and this certainly helps explain their willingness to go to some mad places later on but this never quite reaches the emotional end point to round things off.
A person even madder than them though is Frank. A washed up soon to be divorced neighbour, who somehow despite being broke manages to turn his house into a decent looking casino and get punters in with very little trouble. Jason Mantzoukas is by far the best thing in this, with most of the films’ best lines saved for his energetic snappy delivery. That’s not to say Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler don’t try their best, they are after all incapable of ever being unlikable, but the material they have to work with is so painfully stilted and lifeless that no amount of gurning could change that. Ferrell is still a genius when it comes to off kilter line delivery and still has the knack for eliciting a laugh with just a facial expression, but outside of a running gag about his poor math skills he gets little to wrap his comedic tongue around. Poehler likewise gets a few moments to shine in an otherwise sleepy performance. You can almost see it on her face that the script offers barely an ounce of the wit Parks and Recreation afforded her.
Surrounding players are hit and miss, with Rob Huebel being the only real standout as a droll police officer determined to solve the reason for all the mysterious late night shenanigans. There is even a surprising if ultimately pointless cameo from a certain Avenger as events get ever more wilder. Oh yes of course things are going to escalate beyond the already high concept idea, but the film never quite gets as crazy as it thinks it does. There is also a troubling lack of consequence to things too. Now comedies do not necessarily have to have believable real world consequences but you have to feel like there will be some sort of payoff to these character’s actions. Nothing anyone does here seems to lead to any tangible tension, Scott and Kate especially face no real challenges beyond trying to raise the tuition money. Even when the police discover what they are up to, the film decides that illegal gambling can just be cast aside because they are nice people. I mean I know this is a comedy but come on people, give us some shred of forward momentum!
Things are not helped by the truly low production values, with events mainly taking place in the clearly cheaper confines of the suburban casino. Comedic set-pieces are few and far between with the only notable standout being a Scorsese referencing torture scene that offers at least a shred of laugh out loud histrionics. This is the most egregious part of The House though, no matter how thin the plot may be or cheap the whole thing looks if the laughs are readily available then all of this would be forgotten. Cohen, who has decent form in the past scripting Bad Neighbours 1 and 2, just flounders in this capacity. Lines coming and going with a frequency of tumbleweed no great comedy can afford to have. If someone offers you tickets to The House your first response should be “no dice!” (Apologies)
Verdict: The House is forgettable comedy at its pinnacle. Thinly plotted, clunkily constructed and wasting the talents at its centre.