Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Andrew Jay Cohen
Stars: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Ryan Simpkins, Nick Kroll, Rob Heubel, Jeremy Renner, Cedric Yarbrough, Kyle Kinane, Lennon Parham, Michaela Watkins .
One of the truisms of gambling says that the house always wins. However, with this supposed comedy about an ordinary family that set up an illegal underground casino in the leafy streets of suburbia, it is the audience who are the losers. Let’s face it – when was the last time Will Ferrell made a decent movie? Recent films like Get Hard, Daddy’s Home and even Zoolander 2 have been bland, grating, disappointing and largely unfunny efforts. He seems to have lost that unpredictable and edgy quality and now mainly does the same familiar shtick in every movie he makes. He seems to be stuck in a rut, playing the everyman who makes some bad decisions, and the characters he plays are virtually interchangeable in every movie. And they are not terribly funny!
Here he teams up with Amy Poehler, a gifted comedian in her own right with her work on SNL and her collaborations with Tina Fey. The pair play Scott and Kate Johansen, a middle-class couple who are happy when their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) is accepted into the college of her choice. But when the scholarship they were counting on to help pay the tuition fees is suddenly cancelled they find themselves in a financial bind. Desperate to find the money to send Alex to college they accept an offer from their gambling addict neighbour and friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas, from Dirty Grandpa, etc) to go to Vegas and win their fortune.
But when things do not go according to plan, Frank comes up with an even more bizarre idea. They transform his basement into an illegal casino. The get rich quick scheme is successful and soon the money is rolling in. But with their sudden wealth they also begin to change their personalities drastically. Soon they arouse the suspicions of corrupt local councilor (Nick Kroll) and the hapless policeman (Rob Huebel, recently seen in the big screen version of Baywatch, etc), who makes Don Knott’s Barney Fyfe seem like a Mensa graduate by comparison. They also attract the attention of a gangster (Jeremy Renner), who tries to muscle in on their action.
The House is a comedic riff on Martin Scorsese’s Casino, but is only moderately successful. The director is Andrew Jay Cohen, a writer making his feature film debut here. Cohen co-wrote the script with Brendan O’Brien, his regular collaborator on films like Bad Neighbours and the awful Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates, etc, but this is only fitfully funny, and tonally uneven. There was an opportunity for the filmmakers to satirise the American ethos of greed and materialism here, but sadly the opportunity is lost.
There is some physical comedy here with a brutal fight night and the trio being forced to deal with the odd cheat, but these scenes also have a rather nasty undertone. Cohen keeps up a frenetic pace throughout, but unfortunately there is a paucity of genuinely funny moments. Many of the gags are telegraphed.
The third act of the film itself becomes too farfetched, and pushes the material in a different direction to the original intention.
Ferrell and Poehler desperately try to wring laughs out of the patchy script. Renner seems distinctly uncomfortable with his small role here. Mantzoukas is arguably the best thing here as the desperate loser Frank, whose wife has left him because of his addictions to both gambling and on-line pornography. Cedric Yarbrough, Kyle Kinane, Lennon Parham and Michaela Watkins play some of the Johansen’s eccentric neighbours who frequent the illegal casino. Outtakes during the end credits show that they seemed to have a lot of fun shooting the film, but very little of this fun has reached the screen. And, as is increasingly common nowadays, it seems that most of the best gags have been shown in the trailer, so there are few surprises.
There has been a dearth of genuinely funny screen comedies this year, and The House is another disappointment. The fact that the distributor didn’t show it to media in advance of its release was warning enough about its lack of quality. This is like a craps shoot – you roll the dice and take your chance.