“The House” is aimed specifically at diehard fans of Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell. The “Saturday Night Live” alums dominate the screen in a film which delivers laughs at times and fades at others. Sadly, Warner Bros.’ trailer for the film showed more promise than the end product from writer/ director Andrew Jay Cohen and co-writer Brendan O’Brien.
The plot’s premise begins strong enough- Alex (Ryan Simpkins), the only child of Kate (Poehler) and Scott (Ferrell) Johansen, is a high school senior who hopes to attend private Bucknell University. Her parents’ over-protective tendencies are immediately apparent when the family tours the college and then anxiously awaits the university’s decision.
After Alex is accepted at Bucknell, Kate and Scott are hopeful she will receive the full-tuition scholarship their suburb of Fox Meadows awards each year. While Alex does win, City Councilman Bob Schaffer (Nick Kroll) follows up by saying the city unfortunately won’t be funding the scholarship. Instead, that money will go toward a water theme park. When Kate and Scott try to protest this decision, their neighbors are easily swayed by Bob to favor the water park, revealing a basic, town-wide culture of self-centered, back-stabbing residents who resent each other.
Adding to Kate and Scott’s worries is Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), a friend they promised to go with to Las Vegas. But, that was before Frank fell apart after his wife (Michaela Watkins) left him due to his gambling and porn addiction. Despite doubts they should make the trip, Kate and Scott ultimately decide to support their devastated friend.
Just when it looks like they might win enough money at the craps tables to send Alex to Bucknell, their luck changes. But, manipulative Frank talks the two desperate parents into helping him open an illegal casino in his home since “the house always wins.” It doesn’t take much common sense to see this plan will have more pitfalls than successes. The results are sometimes funny and frequently violent and (literally) bloody.
“Predictable” and “overplayed” sum up most of the humor in “The House” (“insensitive judgment” could also apply to some of the topics- note to Cohen and O’Brien, date rape and race wars are not comedy material). When Scott and Kate face any choice, the audience quickly learns the couple will choose the worst possible option. And, when the comedy morphs from slapstick to physical violence, the outcome is predictable, too. Add in over-played (Cohen and O’Brien seem to think blood spurting from severed limbs is so funny it needs to be repeated over and over) and the result is humor which doesn’t even qualify as dark comedy.
The unfortunate thing is, “The House” didn’t have to end up this way. Both Poehler and Ferrell have comedic strengths. Hers is playing quirky or exaggeratedly rough-edged. She channels some of that “tough chick” vibe in “The House,” but rather sporadically.
Ferrell, meanwhile, is busy with Scott’s kind-hearted but not too quick, or wise, persona. After an ax scene, his character gains the nickname “The Butcher” but that plays awkwardly, at best. Later, Ferrell adopts a Vegas mob boss look à la De Niro in “Casino,” with slicked hair, oversized dark glasses, and coordinated shirts and ties. But that tribute/ parody, which could have been mined for comedic effect, is (uncharacteristically for “The House”) passed over much too soon.
Joining Poehler and Ferrell for the majority of the mayhem is Mantzoukas as Frank. When he first appears, Frank is a mess- disheveled, rambling, and smelly. But, as soon as the trio heads to Vegas, Frank is a new man- cleaned up and mentally sharp as a tack. This abrupt change in attitude could possibly be attributed to a gambler’s “high.” But, it also plays as very unlikely that a guy who only a few days earlier looked and acted like he was headed for skid row is now a slick salesman preparing PowerPoints and spreadsheets to sell Kate and Scott on an illegal casino.
“The House’s” other cast members barely receive enough screen time to leave an impression. Simpkins as Alex is sadly underutilized. Her opening scenes with Poehler and Ferrell radiate good chemistry but once the casino opens, her character is left in the dust.
The bitter, selfish residents of Fox Meadows (especially Lennon Parham, Cedric Yarbrough, and Andrea Savage) never get to fully develop their characters. Kroll as weasely Councilman Bob and Rob Huebel as Police Officer Chandler get more time than most of the other supporting players. But, Kroll’s Bob is so unlikable that the comedy regarding his character falls flat. Chandler, Bob’s polar opposite, is so good that, once again, the humor fails.
Given the early betrayal of the awarded scholarship, Cohen and O’Brien could have let the plot go many different ways. Exploiting the organized crime aspect that (predictably) enters “The House,” or including getting even with Fox Meadows via undermining the water park, might have helped. Instead, the writers’ final choice, like so many of those made by their lead characters, was not the funniest possibility.