Theoretically, there’s a funny movie to be made out of the joke junkyard that is The House. The story of a dead-eyed suburban couple coping with the imminent departure of their only child to college, this imaginary comedy would contrast their drab lives with the incredibly brazen plan they hatch to pay for their daughter’s pricey private school, which involves opening an illegal, underground casino that caters to their similarly basic neighbors. In the process, the seemingly milquetoast couple reignite the spark in their moribund relationship while acknowledging the empty nest that awaits them.
Not a terrible idea for a movie. Too bad The House doesn’t get close to executing any of that. Running less than 90 minutes, it’s excruciatingly flat and goes on forever. There are many funny people in this film. By the time it’s over, you may forget that they ever made you smile.
The House stars Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as Scott and Kate, who are so proud of the apple of their eye, Alex (Ryan Simpkins), who’s all grown up and ready to head to Bucknell. But after an expected scholarship falls through, the parents realize they don’t have the money to send her. (In one of the film’s staggeringly stupid running gags, Scott is so bad with numbers that even doing simple math makes him break out into sweats.) In a pinch, they’re convinced by their lowlife, gambling addict pal Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) to start a casino in his basement. Sure, they could go to jail, but what’s a little crime when their daughter’s future is at stake?
The film is directed and co-written by Andrew Jay Cohen, one of the writers of the really sharp Neighbors and the absolutely idiotic Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. His directorial debut seems to have been shaped by uninspired on-set improvisation and then ruthlessly hacked to bits in postproduction so that only the bare bones of the story remained. Not screened in advance for critics, The House is the sort of atrocious movie that’s not even fun to despise. Cohen and his cast seem to have little idea what’s clever about their concept, and the film doesn’t even benefit from the sort of nutsy confidence that’s been the highlight of previous Ferrell misfires like Casa de mi Padre. It would be inaccurate to say that a talented ensemble flails in The House—for that to be the case, people would need to exude some energy in the first place.
As might be expected, this seemingly square married couple initially fears getting involved in something so illicit. But once they get a taste for the money that gambling generates—and start to get addicted to the power of being casino bosses—they find it’s shockingly easy to set aside their docile demeanors and embrace their inner crime lords. It’s not hard to imagine Ferrell and Poehler digging into these roles—especially Ferrell, who pulled off a similar transition with The Other Guys’ hilarious backstory about his uptight accountant and his pimp past. But The House has nothing witty to reveal in Scott and Kate’s transformation—the movie has nothing witty to say about anything.
The sense of strain is felt throughout. Mantzoukas has been a reliably amusing character actor on sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Poehler’s Parks and Recreation, loathsome cretins his specialty. But Frank isn’t even a good heel; eager to win back his ex-wife (an utterly wasted Michaela Watkins), he sees the casino as a way to reclaim his foreclosed house and prove that he’s a changed man. But there’s no delicious despicableness to the character, so Mantzoukas has nothing to play. Like most everybody in The House, his job seems to be to shout exposition, react to the latest bland obstacle thrown their way and then move on to the next scene.
In what amounts to a glorified cameo, Jeremy Renner shows up as a ruthless criminal who decides to rob the casino. He’s part of The House’s other running joke—side characters getting limbs cut off in exaggeratedly bloody ways—and even people with a penchant for sophomoric, over-the-top comedic gore will find these moments largely desperate. But when it comes to flop sweat, this R-rated film really scrapes the bottom of the barrel by throwing out the occasional F-bomb in situations that are struggling to feign mirthfulness.
Ferrell has a track record of hits, so an abomination like The House won’t hurt him. But one feels bad for Poehler, whose film career has never been as sterling as what she’s achieved on the small screen with Saturday Night Live, Parks and Rec and as a cohost of the Golden Globes with Tina Fey. Her movies have been far more hit-or-miss, with her winning turn in Inside Out overshadowed by forgettable star vehicles (Sisters) and supporting roles in other people’s films (Anchorman 2, Blades of Glory). In The House, she seems mildly engaged with the material, playing up Kate’s soccer-mom sweetness before becoming the tough-talking badass who rules the casino with an iron fist. It’s never all that funny, mind you—the film is a black hole that sucks comedy into its vortex, never to be seen again. But at least Poehler seems to care. It’s more than I could say while watching The House.
Director: Andrew Jay Cohen
Writers: Brendan O’Brien & Andrew Jay Cohen
Starring: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll, Jeremy Renner, Ryan Simpkins, Allison Tolman, Michaela Watkins
Release Date: June 30, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.