This largely unfunny R-rated romp is an unlucky roll of the dice.
Filmmaking is a gamble. The stakes are high, and studios must decided whether or not to put their chips on the table. In the case of The House – the latest comedic offering from Warner Bros. Pictures – it is one bad bet. Despite being headlined by the comedic heavyweight duo of Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, debutant director and co-writer Andrew Jay Cohen forces the fold thanks to uninspired humour, sloppy characterisation, and tonal imbalance.
Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) Johansen are a stuck-in-a-rut suburban couple who are facing the uphill struggles of finance. After losing a grant which would pay for their daughter’s college tuition, they team up with professional mess and gambling addict, Frank Theodorakis (Jason Mantzoukas), and open an illegal casino. The shady backdoor activities quickly become the talk of the town, and the Johansens are well on their way to sending Alex (Ryan Simpkins) to the school of her dreams, but they hadn’t counted for the crooked town councilman attempting to shatter their empire.
There are plentiful problems here, but the largest is failing to utilise its stars. Both Ferrell and Poehler are Saturday Night Live alumni; their careers sculpted by the ability to think quickly, and react to their surroundings in an innovative, and by default, hilarious, manner. Poehler in particular – star of the sublime Parks and Recreation – is one of the sharpest, most delightfully keen-witted performers working today, yet she is failed by clumsy, recycled gags and dialogue which does little to render her character design. Cohen and co-writer Brendan O’Brien should’ve been braver and stuck a little more into the pot. Their tight script shows little respect nor faith in the dynamic twosome, and consequently squanders such capabilities.
The House‘s opening twenty minutes are biblically dour. Silence was deafening during one’s screening; so much so you could actually hear the audience breathe. Not a single laugh can be found until the casino is in operation, and even here they are few-and-far between. A few lazy chuckles are implemented when soccer moms begin to fight for cash, but again the inept dialogue doesn’t assist the high-intensity moment. At one point, a door is slammed in the face of another, and Kate’s line is “Oh! She doored her!”. Yeah, that’s about the extent of creativity and imagination to be found.
Some of the more explicit gags – violent as opposed to sexual – are amusing. Scott’s sudden alter-ego “The Butcher” provides a macabre, if completely misplaced, laughing streak, and the gallons of comedy blood are darkly enjoyable. Nestled next to the intoxicatingly saccharine family arc however, it feels disjointed and without clarity. Scott and Kate are good people who do a terrible thing, but The House fails to underpin the real heart of that scenario. Instead Cohen just keeps twisting the dial from one through eleven for two entire acts.
Visually and aesthetically, the film is fairly impressive. The basement casino set is vibrant and well-explored; sporting a glossy neon colour palette, and sharp angular framing as we scan the many tables and rooms. Honestly though, viewers don’t head to a comedy film to comment on the mise-en-scène; they wanna laugh, and for the most part, this is void of such.
“If you can’t beat the house, be The House” is the strapline brandished across the film’s promotional campaign. It’s a tag all-too-fitting, for all the wrong reasons. Instead of dealing Ferrell and Poehler a pair of aces, they are granted mismatched suits. You can try to bluff with poor cards, but the likelihood is you’ll get hung out.
The House is out now in UK cinemas.