There’s almost no point in reviewing The House at this point. It’s entering its third weekend, and has already been left for dead, just another failed R-Rated comedy in a year full of them. The critics hated it (18% on RT). Audiences didn’t exactly disagree (B- CinemaScore, where anything below at least a B+ for a comedy is truly terrible). Chances are that if you’ve thought about seeing the movie you’ve already read a scathing review or asked around among your circle of friends only to hear back that under no circumstances should you see this tired comedy.
But, dammit, I saw The House. I have to review it, or else that will have been nearly 2 hours of my life (including the drive to and back from the theater) wasted. The internet needs to hear my thoughts on this ill-fated Amy Poehler-Will Ferrell comedy about an upper-middle-class family (their house gave me serious kitchen envy) who lose a promised scholarship but have no tolerance for such things as financial aid or safety schools and instead aim to finance their daughter’s college career through an illegal, underground casino built in their friend’s suburban home. Are you ready for it? I am about to lay down some serious analysis on you. This is to be the end all, be all of the critical opinions on The House. Hold onto your butts because here it comes:
Oh, dear. I fear I may have oversold the depth of my thoughts on this movie because, honestly, there isn’t much to say other than to lament the colossal waste of such an astonishingly stacked roster of comedians, most of whom are regularly funnier elsewhere, such as on their frequent Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast appearances. Judge the following not for their failure to earn laughs in The House but instead under the assurance that in the right environment these are all wickedly hilarious people:
- Will Ferrell – as the patriarch whose one defining characteristic is that he can’t do math in his head
- Amy Poehler – as the mom who is meant to evolve into a Sharon Stone-in-Casino level badass as the movie progresses but mostly comes off as Poehler cursing a lot in unfunny, clearly improvised bits
- Jason Mantzoukas – as their best friend who has fallen on hard times and kind of steals the movie right out from under everyone due to Mantzoukas’ ability to add an unexpected edge and sometimes hilarious matter-of-factness to every line of dialogue
- Nick Kroll – as the corrupt head of the city council
- Allison Tolman – as an equally corrupt, but somewhat remorseful member of the city council
- Rob Huebel – as the dimwitted local cop
- Lennon Parham – as a suburban mom whose ongoing verbal altercations with Andrea Savage turn physical when the casino adds fights to its featured attractions
- Andrea Savage – who gets an odd bloodthirst for physical combat after her first fight with Parham
- Cedric Yarbrough – as….someone who makes such little impression I’ve already forgotten him
- Kyle Kinane (aka the voice of Comedy Central) – as a dude who gets his ass kicked on the casino’s first fight night
- Michaela Watkins – as Mantzoukas’ permanently-annoyed and estranged wife
- Jessica St. Clair – as a party girl simply credited as “Wall Street Guy-Reba”
- Randall Park – as a “Wall Street Guy” with impressive coke-snorting abilities
Almost every one of them can be found in TV shows which are a better use of your time than The House. Shows like The League, The Kroll Show, Reno 911, Playing House, Fresh Off the Boat, Casual, I’m Sorry, Children’s Hospital, some of which are ongoing, some not, are better displays of what these people are capable of. Playing House, it must be noted, is killing it right now with its deeply affecting storyline inspired by Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham’s real life reactions to the former’s bout with breast cancer.
Of course, such depth would not and should not be expected from The House. This is Ferrell and Poehler in live action cartoon mode, leaning on their shared sketch comedy backgrounds to simply build up a thin story premise they can mostly use to deliver improvised jokes. Ferrell, in particular, specializes in this kind of silly comedy, but the best of them have something of substance behind the punchlines and far-out gags, such as the satire of workplace sexism at the heart of Anchorman, commentary on the 24-hour news cycle in Anchorman 2 or clever send-ups of buddy comedies in The Other Guys.
The House would seem to be perfectly situated to fill this same mode, building its comedy on top of the all-too-real concerns over steadily rising tuition costs and the spectre of student loan debt. Instead, what the film offers up is some of the laziest comedy I’ve seen from any R-Rated comedy since, well, Ferrell’s most recent mis-step, 2015’s astonishingly tone-deaf rich-white-dude-tries-to-learn-how-to-act-black-while-awaiting-his-prison-sentence comedy Get Hard.
The lightbulb moment in the film, where the characters first get the idea to set up their own casino, is a perfect example of this laziness. It comes via an almost throwaway line of dialogue which sounds as if it was ADRed afterward, and follows an extended bit where the camera simply stares at three people (Ferrell, Poehler, Mantzoukas) as they sit and improv back and forth, as if the script simply said “and then the actors pull a bunch of jokes out of their asses.” That is the go-to model for all mainstream American film comedies in a post-Apatow/Hangover world, but The House is what happens when the premise propping up the improv is almost an afterthought and all of the usually funny actors are seriously off their game.
The laziness might also be attributable to the inexperienced director, Andrew Jay Cohen. He hit it big as part of a writing team with Brendan O’Brien on the first Neighbors and went on to co-write Neighbors 2, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and sold The House to New Line with the guarantee that he could make it his directorial debut. The type of person who can excel in the director’s chair on films like is someone who can feed alt-lines to the actors as long as they want, but know when to reign the actors in and remember the point of the story they’re trying to tell. They then need to be able to sort it all out in the editing room. Cohen simply wasn’t up to the task with The House. The sheer number of moments where clearly ADRed plot-explaining dialogue has been inserted after-the-fact is a good indication that during the making of the movie Cohen lost complete sense of the actual story and was just careening from one comedy bit to another.
That might also be why there is so much here that never really amounts to much, such as the way the daughter (Ryan Simpkins) – the key to the entire story – is basically a glorified prop who disappears for large stretches of time. The long-looming scene where she discovers what her parents are doing and confronts them about lying to her all summer occurs almost entirely off-screen during the incredibly busy final comedy setpiece. The same goes for the teased notion that Ferrell’s character is increasingly uncomfortable with and concerned over what the success of the casino is doing to his wife (who takes to the ruthless persona of a casino owner far quicker than he does). Moreover, I don’t know that this movie even fully understands how casino or college finances work.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You know how just about every American comedy these days is mostly held shots on actors as they improv their asses off? Yeah, that’s The House, almost non-stop from beginning to end. That works with the right actors/sketch scenario posing as a plot. It goes horribly wrong in The House, though, as improv kings like Poehler and Ferrell trot out their laziest, worst material to date. There are some laughs to be had from the absurdity of suburbanites taking to the bacchanalia of an illegal casino with such abandon, and Jason Mantzoukas is always reliable for a unique and inspired line reading. But as far as R-Rated comedies go these days The House is among the laziest I’ve seen.