Synopsis – A couple must figure out a way to earn some money after their daughter’s scholarship falls through. When all else fails, the desperate couple join forces with their neighbor Frank to start an underground casino in his home.
My Take – There is no denying that SNL star Will Ferrell comes from a royalty of very funny men! For over a decade, Will Ferrell has become one of the most popular comedic actors in Hollywood & unlike fellow comedian Adam Sandler though, Ferrell has actually had a run of critically successful films like Anchorman (& its awesome sequel), Step Brothers, and Talledga Nights: The Ballard of Ricky Bobby, which have come to become modern comedic staples, with Ferrell’s large than life comedic persona bringing the films to life. While he may not be in his comedic prime as some of his recent films have flopped at the box office (including this one, which just got marked as his biggest box office flop in 18 years), I am still a fan of his work and his charismatic energy, plus no matter how ridiculous and raunchy is films are, they have a morale behind them. Coming to this Andrew Jay Cohen directed comedy, if you think this film is going to be something radically new from Will Ferrell, you’re going to disappointed! But, if you like, or even love, the likes of Step Brothers or The Others Guys or Old School or even Daddy’s Home, then you’ll probably lap this up. A lot of comedies in recent years have felt like a string of decent set-pieces that are strung together by other stuff, but this film hangs together well and feels pretty cohesive even when some moments seem a bit too by the numbers, a lot of that is thanks to a blend of sharp writing, some impeccable puerile and gross-out humor, some deft comedy turns and some other nice touches including a cameo that is quite funny. As a comedy, it works just well enough: there are some solid laugh out loud moments, there’s a sense of R-rated manic energy, and the performances from the cast are mostly funny, as a coherent film, however, the film is a little disappointing mainly due to its very short run time of 88 minutes. This isn’t classic Ferrell film but it’s as close to it as we’ve been for a while and it is damn good fun.
The story follows a middle aged suburban couple Scott and Kate Johansen (Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler), who live in a small enclosed town filled with a variety of people. Happy and distraught at the same time about their only daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) leaving for college, the two are in for a show when they find out that Bob (Nick Kroll), the town counselor has pulled the town’s funds from paying the humongous college fees despite Alex winning the scholarship in favor of a town pool with a large food court. Deciding to hide this form of disappointing news from Alex who is excited about attending her dream school, the two decide to find a way to earn the money one way or another. Following a nearly lucrative trip to Vegas, with their gambling- and porn-addicted soon to be divorced friend, Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), the two are convinced to turn his already foreclosed home into a decked-out and very illegal mini casino/ Complete with massage tables, a comedy club, a nail salon, a “fighting ring,” and eventually an outdoor pool area, it’s the perfect place for a town full of uptight suburbanites to let loose. The money coming from the daily winning stack up to enough for the Johansen’s to pay for Alex’s college fees for the next three years, while Frank can pay back the bank & win back his wife Raina (Michaela Watkins). Thus, begins Scott and Kate’s rise as suburbanite gangsters — until of course the real gangsters show up to crash the party. Along the way Scott accidentally chops off the finger of a mobster rendering them an establishment not to be messed around with, and naturally find themselves in hot water with law enforcement. Just about all the chaos that goes on in this casino is realized with inspired lunacy; even if you know what’s coming, the execution is still surprising. The film follows a broad narrative pattern familiar from films like the Neighbors films and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates — all of which director and co-writer Andrew Jay Cohen had a hand in writing: A hapless (though largely harmless) person or group faces an unexpected life disturbance that forces them to take ridiculous, risky, but sort of fun measures, until things reach their breaking point and the ride comes to a screeching halt. It’s the “that escalated quickly” approach to comedic storytelling, and the film leans into this formula, albeit within a clever central premise. It’s a fast-moving, lighthearted comedy relying on improvised dialogue – not surprising considering the two stars – but also a parody of ‘get rich quick’ stories the American film industry loves so much, regardless of the genre. The improvisational approach is a double-edged sword that can turn a comedy into series of uninspired sketches, but this time it has definitely worked out just fine. It’s compact, doesn’t have tedious filler material nor overstay its welcome, and has some good laughs to boot and there’s less dirty jokes than usual, which is kind of cool too. Now when you hire Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as your leads, you know you have a solid base for your film, and they nail it! They are so wrapped up in not disappointing Alex they both become enablers for each other as they fall deeper into this world. You know it could be so easy to phone a performance like this in, just go through the motions, but it really feels like they are given their all here. As well as this, they have a great rapport with each other, they make banter look easy and effortless, which sells that they have been a couple for a long time. Part why this all works is that you get to clearly see their slow, to sometimes quick descent into the world they are ill prepared for, filled with drugs, and some occasional accidental violence. Although everything that goes on here is against the law and morally gray in some area, it’s a definite positive that the leads are likable with reasons to cheer on their shady operation. The film surprisingly has two graphic scenes of bloody violence that elicit major laugh, a clear indication that the film does not care about grounding itself in reality or dealing with consequences, and setting up an anything that goes with vibe, for example, how is spending a ton of money on an underground casino to make cash possible but not simply paying off the tuition? I stopped giving a damn about the answers to questions like this simply because the jokes frequently hit and came at a rapid pace. Credit to Neighbors’ scribes Brendan O’Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen for getting a lot of comedic mileage out of this premise. While the script may suffer in some noticeable areas, it succeeds at generating quite a few clever laughs.
The film is at its best when its at its most relaxed, with a lot of improvised moments having real comedic strength. I also appreciate just how wild this film gets with its comedic set pieces, going in some interesting and funny detours along the way. Compared to most other comedies, the film thankfully never takes itself too seriously. While most comedies try to hit the audience over the head with forced sentimentality, this film keeps that to a minimum. The few moments that do show some sentimentality are actually kind of sweet, with Ferrell and Poehler’s naturalistic performances adding some authenticity. With such a short running time, there’s obviously almost nothing in the way of character development. There’s no real sympathy established for the main characters who start an illegal casino, as they are basically one-dimensional and clueless. I doubt the filmmakers ever truly cared about character motivation or establishing any sense or reality, and the majority of the audience won’t either, but everything about the film feels somewhat slapdash and shoddily put together. Maybe at some point there was more meat to the story and more to the film as a whole, though it’s hard to tell in the final cut. Worst of all is the last minute villain that does nothing to forward the plot save for giving another ridiculous joke that will once again either hit or miss. As per usual with comedies these days, there are scenes from the trailers missing in the finalized version. Outside of the titular house, however, director Cohen struggles with finding footing for the comedy, often relying on having Ferrell and Poehler behave loud and obnoxious. Much of the dead air involves lame, lazy sexual humor such as a drunk Poehler pissing on their front yard. It’s in these moments that you’ll definitely wish for the film to head back to the casino as quickly as possible. In general, Poehler probably could have been given better material, but she does develop her own deadly trade alongside Ferrell’s butchering of cheaters. There’s also one too many characters in the mix, as Nick Kroll plays a crooked City Hall councilmember more interested in his own personal gain and love affairs. The whole conflict adds an unnecessary amount of secondary players that have very little to do, amounting to nothing in the grand scheme of things, at least there is an amazing Terminator homage during the climactic showdown. The film’s premise is clever, and Poehler and Ferrell’s delivery does a lot to sell the jokes, but in the end these characters mostly do and say exactly what anyone who’s seen a “that escalated quickly” comedy expects they will: get wasted, slow-motion party, rub money all over themselves, wield blowtorches, pee in inappropriate places, and eventually succeed in sending their kid to school. Basically, they mess things up and then put them back together again. Like I mentioned above, this film really would not be anything without its core stars. Despite never working as a comedic duo before, both Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler have great chemistry. They are instantly believable as a married couple, sharing a lot of personable moments that help render their characters. Ferrell’s over-the-top reactions and habit of spitting out random, totally inappropriate words to answer questions is on full display here, as is Poehler‘s charming straight-man condescension and ability to both play on and play up someone else’s jokes. But Ferrell never loses his signature naive sincerity, while Poehler — even while high — remains the more realistic harebrained logician. Jason Mantzoukas’ Frank is without a doubt, the most lovable character in the film and often stealing the show from his co-stars. The trio all play off each other so well, making even the weakest of jokes still have some spark. The supporting cast, Rob Huebel, Nick Kroll, Allison Tolman, Michaela Watkins, Rory Scovel and Lennon Parham all get their chance to shine as well. Jeremy Renner is funny in a cameo. On the whole, ‘The House’ is a predictable yet enjoyable comedy laced by its leads dynamic chemistry & solid laughs.
Directed – Andrew Jay Cohen
Rated – R
Run Time – 88 minutes