The college wishes of a teenage girl rests in the hands of transforming their residence into “The House”. The acceptance of their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) into the university of her choosing, Scott (Will Ferrell) and Kate (Amy Poehler) Johansen scramble to pull the funds together to give her the experience that she deserves. The couple find out that they lost their daughter Alex’s college fund, so they become desperate to earn it back so she can pursue her dream of attending in the fall. With the help of their neighbor Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), they decide to start an illegal casino in the basement of his house, complete with gambling, a bar-keep, and even a strip club. The once cautious parents soon find themselves over their heads at the seedy underworld of gambling that has suddenly overtaken their lives and personalities. “The House” is written and directed by Andrew Jay Cohen, and is rated R for adult language throughout, sexual references, drug use, some violence and brief nudity.
Behind every critical praise of an exceptional comedic performance is a director who lacks the same kind of credit for their commitment to making that comedian shine. For whatever reason, fate has worked well for Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler up to this time, as the duo have racked up a collection of box office draws that have put them at the head of the class of noteworthy Saturday Night Live cast members who struck it big. That time is coming to an end however, because Andrew Jay Cohen’s “The House” is not only one of the most far-fetched ideas in a script, it’s also sponged itself free of any laughs in the entirety of the movie. I’m serious, I sat through 83 minutes of this film as quiet as I would be if I were at church listening to a sermon. My excitement level was about the same as that previous comparison as well. For whatever reason, we get one of these movies yearly now, and what little charm or buzz that has surrounded these once vibrantly gifted actors has now put them on the path to conventional repetition to where they feel like they don’t even have to try anymore. That’s not to say that “The House” is a cash-grab. You would have to earn cash to grab it, and I, as well as the rest of the world, have grown tired of underplaying efforts from behind and in front of the camera that voids you of any kind of entertainment.
Much of this script revolves around this secret casino that apparently fifty people or so from the same town can majestically keep quiet from police authorities and an egocentric mayor who he himself is sponging money from the community. Suddenly, what happens inside of the casino becomes the story itself, and the film that revolved once around this daughter going to college is pushed aside so Ferrell and Poehler can say off-the-wall remarks and indulge in sight gags that feel ten years too late. My biggest problem with this script is that I don’t buy for one second that these two, let alone an entire community, can keep a secret like this considering how dumb these human canvases are painted. The film wants these people to be baffling idiots so they can be quirky for the audience watching, but they need them to be smart enough to keep this thing on the down-low. This stark contrast of back-and-forth leaves the film feeling like a fantasy is playing out in the heads of these boring parents, but unfortunately we don’t ever see the appeal in it that they do.
Scenes happen that go nowhere or make very little sense in the long run, and it all leads to a finale that feels so sloppy in diagraph that the movie often loses its moral compass in logical assertiveness. I do have to talk of some light spoilers here, but nothing that will make you feel ripped off by reading it. So at the start of the third act, the casino gets busted by the mayor and the police. They take all of the cash that they have accumulated, and you would think that would be the end of it. Nope, the next night they and about a hundred of their guests are back at it gambling and having a good time. I have two big problems with this scenario; one, the cops would be stalking this place out after they have been busted, and two, no gambler would come within a mile of this place less than twenty-four hours after it has been shut down. Had this scene happened before the big bust, then fine, but Cohen’s script is so sloppy that it doesn’t even have time to be honest with itself, let alone the audience that should feel like their intelligence has been insulted.
Cohen’s stance doesn’t improve much as a director either, because it’s clear that he has no control over his two leading stars for their abuse on the concepts of improv. To anyone who has read my most recent negative comedy reviews, you will know that my number one pet peeve in these movies that sours itself is gripping improv comedy to the point of annoyance. It is the jump scare of the comedy genre, and just as equally predictable when you know it’s going to happen. In “The House’s” case, it will be whenever something happens to Ferrell or Poehler’s characters that they find strange or peculiar, so now we know a long speech lurks behind this scene that should’ve been cut with just one funny line. Nope, Cohen leaves the camera rolling because something has to pad itself out for the run time when the rapid-fire plot sure doesn’t. These scenes for me are insufferable and make 83 minutes of a usually quick sit feel like two hours with your parents who are now trying to be hip and edgy.
If there is one pleasant surprise to this movie, it’s in the action and overall violence that opened my eyes quite a bit to how brutal this movie can be at times. There are quite a few bloody scenes that reach for the gross-out factor, but I was so smitten with something different than the Ferrell and Poehler comedy hour that I would’ve been fine with even a sing-a-long at this point. On top of the bloody surprises, the film also has a couple of fight sequences that are surprisingly done with such detail and precision that it makes them feel like they came out of a Jason Statham movie. This of course feels incredibly out of place with what kind of tone Cohen is trying to attain here, but I would be a fool if I tried to take any kind of positivity away from this movie. Each knee-jerk reaction is appropriately timed and achieves what it sets out to do in completely flooring the audience into the kind of seedy underworld that these once conservative townspeople have engaged in.
My previous words already told you everything that you have to know about Ferrell and Poehler’s mind-numbingly bland characters. Most notably, these two are playing themselves in every other movie that you have seen them in, in fact, you’d be hard-pressed in distinguishing the differences between Ferrell’s character here and the one he plays in “Daddy’s Home”. But the film does have some pop-up appearances from comedians that will feel like they have all been sent here to save this project. In addition to Mantzoukas who doesn’t have the best material to work with, but makes the most of this limited opportunity, there are appearances from Nick Kroll, Allison Tolman, Rob Huebel, Cedric Yarbrough, and Sebastian Maniscalco. There is also an appearance from one huge action star who should be years above this project, but seeing him did bring a much-needed smile to my face when the rest of the movie lacked that power. Since I’m sure one of my readers might want to see this movie, I will not spoil this brief occurrence, but I will say that it does break the fourth wall of sorts with where it’s headed creatively with the film when he does show up.
THE VERDICT – The roof falls in on this house mostly because its overabundance of improv stick, as well as inconsistency in the story keep it from ever braving the storm of mundane directing. For two comic actors well into their second decade of prominence, “The House” feels low even for Ferrell and Poehler who blow their stack of reputable chips on a game that does them no favors to even the most hardcore fans of both. Cohen’s latest is the kind of gamble that you as a moviegoer most definitely do not want to take, because what happens in a movie theater doesn’t just stay in a movie theater, it stays with your memories for life.