The premise underlying ‘The House’ is loaded with potential laughs: Scott (Will Ferrell) and Kate (Amy Poehler) realise that they can’t afford to send their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) to college, so they set up an illegal casino with their pal Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) to make some quick cash. It’s a little risqué, it’s got an element of farce to it, there’s a nuclear family to cheer for at the centre of it, plus its stars are two of the biggest names in comedy today. That’s a home run on paper. Yet more and more in recent memory, American comedies like this, with all-star casts and solid narrative set-ups (think ‘Central Intelligence’ or ‘Ride Along’ and its sequel, think ‘Get Hard’ or ‘Bad Santa 2’), fail to hit their targets. They’re not particularly funny. What’s toughest about ‘The House’ is that you can see the whale of a time that Ferrell and Poehler et al. are having, riffing off one another and trying to make each other break, developing more and more insane improvised lines, but little of their fun translates well into the sloppy finished product. It flies past at just 88 minutes, but it needs at least another 20 minutes of good old-fashioned jokes on top before an audience could begin to enjoy themselves as much as the cast.
The film’s introduction is shockingly quick: Alex wants to go to Bucknell University but the Town Council, led by Bob Schaefer (Nick Kroll) and treasurer Dawn (Allison Tolman), has cancelled her scholarship to pay for a new pool. Her parents, Scott and Kate don’t have the money to send her themselves. A weekend trip to Vegas with Scott’s recently separated friend Frank leads him making them an attractive proposition; if that house always wins, then why not become the house? By the end of the first act, they’ve got a very professional looking operation set-up at Frank’s house, and the townsfolk (and moolah) are starting to arrive in droves. Their growing success is not without its drawbacks however, including attention from law enforcement and local gangsters.
How funny you find ‘The House’ will depend on the mileage that you get out of watching adults act like obnoxious children. Well, maybe not children exactly, because they drink and smoke and curse and enjoy other adult activities, but they exhibit the same loose grasp of morality, the same self-centeredness and disregard for consequences, and the same reduced intellectual capacity. Absurd humour certainly has its place in comedic canon (see the Monty Python gentlemen for proof), and even works in plenty of modern comedies (see the ‘smart dumb’ comedies of Adam McKay, such as ‘Step Brothers’ or ‘Anchorman’). However, when characters are this dumb (Scott can barely add multiples of ten together) and the rest of the film exists in the “real world”, there’s an uncomfortable friction between them and everything surrounding them. Not only is the writing sub-par, the craft on display is all function, no flash. Besides a few slow-or-fast-motion sequences scattered about, everything on display is flatly lit and boringly shot. Comedy deserves better. Suffice to say, it all gets tied up in a ridiculous, unrealistically happy ending that should be sunk by any of several absurd plot holes, but such a happy ending seems to be par for the course these days.
Notwithstanding, ‘The House’ has a few funny moments. Jason Mantzoukas gets some laughs recycling the wild, deranged characters he plays on TV’s ‘The League’ and ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’, and there’s plenty of gas in the madly escalating upgrades that Frank organises for their casino. While a bland neighbourhood ‘fight night’ is built up as the must-see centrepiece by the film’s marketing, an earlier gag where Frank hires a comedian to perform in a room repurposed as their casino theatre (much like Jerry Seinfeld might book a regular gig at the Bellagio) is far more effective. It’s only momentary, but seeing their comic perform for an extremely responsive crowd of one ironically gave me my biggest laugh of the whole film.
Premise aside, the main attraction of ‘The House’ for me was its pairing of two comedy giants, Ferrell and Poehler, leading a film together for the first time. I don’t know if it’s debut director Andrew Jay Cohen’s inexperience or the script’s lack of punch, but neither really approaches their best. They’re clearly having a great time and their improvisational chemistry is fine, but fun for the performers is not the same as fun for the audience. Both leads are surprisingly flat in the end, and the movie moves quickly from A to B to C, sustained by these thinly sketched characters limping through set pieces. I wouldn’t call it a bad movie, but I would insist that it should have been much, much better. They say that the house always wins – in this case, they were wrong.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting