There’s no more damning indictment of the current state of Hollywood comedies than that Will Ferrell keeps getting cast as boring white collar blokes, in movies that aren’t The LEGO Movie. We don’t want to defend his latest too strongly, but while it’s certainly one in a line of lacklustre films like it, it’s easily a cut above the bland Daddy’s Home (which has a sequel coming this Christmas), and the foul Get Hard.
The House is the directorial debut of Andrew Jay Cohen, co-writer of the Bad Neighbours films, and finds another couple in yet another naughty situation. However, this couple is much further along than Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne’s new parents, as devoted dad Scott (Ferrell) and mum Kate (Amy Poehler) prepare to send their only daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) off to Bucknell University, their alma mater.
But when she’s cruelly denied a promised scholarship by city councilman Bob (Nick Kroll), Scott and Kate are forced to take desperate measures to secure Alex’s future. Their recently divorced buddy Frank (Jason Mantzoukas of How Did This Get Made fame) hits upon the idea of starting an underground casino for their bored neighbours, and the three of them go all in on the illicit enterprise in the hopes of winning back the tuition money.
All three leads are above this sort of thing, but they’re also the only thing that really make it watchable. Ferrell also produces alongside Adam McKay of Anchorman and Step Brothers fame, and there are frequently moments here that the two of them would have nailed in their own movies. The film needs to be a few degrees sillier than it actually is to really fly, but nevertheless, it’s Ferrell, Poehler and Mantzoukas who are dragging it up by its bootstraps.
In particular, city council corruption and bureaucratic tangles on this scale feel beneath Poehler, whose Leslie Knope would have wrapped this business up in a 20 minute episode of Parks & Recreation, but she’s into this, with more gusto than it warrants. Elsewhere, while it’s not the breakthrough that Mantzoukas deserves, he makes the most of his larger-than-life, almost cartoonish presence as the brains of the operation and gets the lion’s share of the laughs.
While there are lots of chuckles to be had, and an enjoyably gruesome line in absurd slapstick violence, it feels like a narrowcast version of Bad Neighbours, swearing randomly and unfunnily to secure an R rating. Where those films have the contrast between old and young to fuel its shenanigans, this feels unaccountably amateurish and slapdash, even for a debut movie.
Most notably, when the trio tie up a gambler who has been counting cards at their tables, there’s remarkably little resistance in the tussle that follows, almost as if everyone is moving to their marks. The premise is always mildly preposterous anyway, with the casino’s clientele engaging in fight clubs and unwittingly donating thousands of dollars to their neighbours night after night, but it really loses its way in the second half, when it lingers on misdemeanours that have nothing to do with the main plot until one of the Avengers (and not one of the funny ones) shows up for a pointless but eventful cameo.
In all fairness, The House made me laugh a lot more often than various other tired studio comedies of its ilk, and that’s really the bar for this kind of film. But it’s the three leads who glue the many disparate and misjudged parts of it together, and it’s hard to think of who the film is for, if not for fans of their other, better work. Frankly, they’re well above this contrived, mechanical caper.
The House is in UK cinemas now.