The House (2017)
If you can’t beat the house, be …
The House is exactly what you’d expect from a Will Ferrell vehicle — it’s got a goofy premise, plenty of improv and foolish character banter, with Ferrell doing his usual shtick, portraying a naïve family man who finds himself in an unfortunate situation. So, if you enjoyed Ferrell’s Get Hard (2015), The Campaign (2012) or Blades of Glory (2007), you’ll probably have a great time with this one, even if it does fall short of achieving ‘classic’ Ferrell status. In a year that gave us a ton of low rollers, including Scarlett Johansson’s turkey Rough Night (2017) and Ice Cube’s mean-spirited Fist Fight (2017), The House feels like a safe bet, the flick pairing Saturday Night Live alumni Ferrell and Amy Poehler together (in starring roles) for the very first time. It’s no jackpot, but a win’s a win.
Funny man Will Ferrell plays Scott Johansen, a happily married father who’s living with his wife Kate (Amy Poehler) and their loving, level-headed daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins), the threesome usually bonding over AMC’s post-apocalyptic horror show, The Walking Dead (2010). Things seem to be breezing along nicely, with Alex recently being accepted into the distinguished Bucknell University, her middle-class parents counting on a town scholarship to pay for her college tuition. Alas, when Fox Meadow’s crooked city councilman Bob (Nick Kroll) decides that the money would be better spent on an extravagant community pool, the scholarship is cancelled, leaving Scott and Kate in a rather tough spot.
Coerced into taking a trip to Las Vegas with their gambling, porn-addicted neighbor Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) — so that he can escape an ugly divorce from his angry wife, Raina (Michaela Watkins) — the trio hatch a harebrained scheme to get-rich-quick by means of opening their own illegal underground casino — if the aphorism is true and the house always wins, why not become the house! Using Frank’s empty abode as their night spot, Scott and Kate aim to raise enough money to get Alex into her first-choice university, while Frank plans to win his significant other back with his newfound success. Now, as several stressed-out suburbanites flock to the new gambling spot to give in to their utmost desires, things escalate quickly, the threesome eventually attracting the attention of bona fide gangsters who want in on the high rolling action.
Written by Andrew Jay Cohen (who makes his directing debut here) along with writing partner Brendan O’Brien — the pair responsible for Neighbors (2014) and its sequel, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016) — The House is probably a bit too short (running at a mere 88 minutes) and tonally jumbled for its own good. You see, things happen way too quickly, with the titular dice joint virtually gaining popularity overnight — we see dozens of residents splashing their hard earned cash on slot machines and craps tables alike. Heck, it almost feels as though large clumps of the film were emitted to keep its run-time down — for instance, it’s never actually clear what Scott and Kate do for work. Then, when a potluck dinner vendetta between a couple of soccer moms, Martha (Lennon Parham) and Laura (Andrea Savage), turns into an all-out brawl — which players begin to place bets on — the underground den explodes at an even more implausible rate — all of a sudden it’s got a comedy club, fighting arena, surveillance equipment and an outdoor pool. Really?
As our protagonists begin to realize how much dough they’re making, they turn to Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) for lifestyle tips, Poehler’s Kate becoming addicted to pot, literally out of no where, and Ferrell’s Scott re-inventing himself as a dangerous enforcer known as The Butcher — a plot thread that should’ve been expanded on. Moreover, the three buddies start wearing gangsta-type clothing and taking on tough-as-nails personas — cue The Sopranos theme — whilst acting like a bunch of kids who are doing something sneaky behind their parents’ backs. It’s all a bit silly and far-fetched. The House also features several moments of over-the-top violence and fountains of fake blood; there’s one scene that sees Ferrell use an axe to chop a guy’s finger off (to teach him a lesson for counting cards) and another that involves a dangerous crime boss played by Jeremy Renner, The Bourne Legacy (2012).
Fortunately, Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler (who are friends in real-life) sync up rather nicely, the comedy veterans supplying the flick with the bulk of its energy and laughs — look, they aren’t as relatable or well-rounded as Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne’s characters from Neighbors, but they’re still a lot of fun. Whether they’re vomiting in retail stores, pushing their daughter’s friends over or peeing in public, Scott and Kate remain pretty likable throughout. With that said, Ferrell’s Scott is probably a smidgen too stupid. Here’s a guy who’s apparently not good with numbers — he literally breaks into a sweat every time he’s asked to do simple addition — yet we’re supposed to believe that he’s running a successful gambling establishment. Unlikely.
Jason Mantzoukas, Dirty Grandpa (2016) is manic as the couple’s about-to-be-divorced buddy Frank, who masterminds the whole operation to try and get out of his own personal runt, whilst Nick Kroll, Sausage Party (2016), and Allison Tolman, The Gift (2015), have little to do as corrupt City Hall councilman Bob Schaeffer and his co-worker Dawn (whom he’s having an affair with). Lastly Rob Huebel, Baywatch (2017), dons the uniform (again) as Officer Chandler, a dense cop who seems to have no story function outside of formulating a happy ending for our heroes, who get away with multiple counts of felony. Oh, look out for comedians Cedric Yarbrough, Amateur Night (2016), and Kyle Kinane, Funny People (2009), as a couple of suburban residents who frequent the flashy casino.
At the end of the day, The House misses an opportunity to satire a burden that’s facing many American families today — several struggling to send their kids to expensive collages — or parody notions of self-indulgence and materialism. What we get instead is another paint-by-numbers ‘irresponsible adults’ comedy that relies way too heavily on ad-lib. But, if you’re like me and enjoy seeing Will Ferrell do his thing, I’d say roll the dice and take a chance on The House, it might surprise you.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie