By Joe Hammerschmidt
Is it wrong to keep holding out false hope for Hollywood to rise up and create a comedy that’s not quite by the numbers, that’s unafraid to throw a curveball and try something different? I suppose yes, knowing there’ll be times when the comedy you’re watching not only insults you with its idiocy, but also manages to let nearly every joke come up short, even the ones that worked. Regrettably, Andrew Jay Cohen’s The House is one of those comedies, where so little of the humor works, and its limitations can be felt immediately. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just prevents the efforts made from rising to levels that could’ve been easily reached.
Ferrell and Poehler are known as Scott and Kate Johansen, committed parents to college-bound daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) who, when they discover the town has no money to spend on a scholarship that was otherwise guaranteed to their daughter, need to find an alternative solution. Instead of just saying they can’t afford tuition, they look to close friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), a gambling addict whose life is crumbling with a looming divorce from ex Raina (Michaela Watkins). His tricks of the trade enable the out-of-sane-options parents to support the development of an illegal casino operation in Frank’s lavish house, running on the belief that “at night’s end, The House wins everything.” The truth to that is often stretched out further than needed.
Running parallel is a secure B-plot satire of the downfall of city government, with Nick Kroll as the deserved champion of recent shady movie politicians. Even after his constituents denying Alex’s scholarship, instead wanting to finance a public pool for their sleepy town, he’s still not satisfied with where his public opinion lies. Kroll is a welcome sight, yet for all his activity on screen, one has to wonder why he’s around in the first place. A close relationship with the Johansen’s financian rep, Dawn (Allison Tolman) adds almost nothing except for as a way to keep the action moving. Officer Chandler (Rob Heubel) is enough of a loyal lackey to Bob, yet like his superior his actions appear even more questionable, chuckle-worthy as they are.
Through the sin of the overall illegality, each of the town’s residents, played by a few exceptional comedians; Martha, the defensive soccer mom (Lennon Parham); Laura, her archnemesis (Andrea Savage), whose dynamic drives one of the strongest funny spots; and a handful of one-offs with good hearts (Kyle Kinane, Rory Scovel, Cedric Yarbrough, to name just three), all release their own sinful nature. Only Poehler and Ferrell, longtime friends since their SNL days actually make the evil side almost prophetic in major examples of “suburban chaos”, which starts with Ferrell sending a message to a random card-counter who turns out to be an associate with a local mob. Therein, through the bad jokes, awkward cultural references and appropriately placed pointlessness scattered about, the parents will seek to grow a spine and actually play parents who eventually need to drop a ball on the truth.
Cohen, alongside writing partner Brendan O’Brien (Neighbors 1 and 2) are working with their niche of parents cutting past absurdity. Yet unlike their past work, something tells me writing for Ferrell means playing for the Nth degree or higher. The higher the bet, the higher the comic reward. After some time, however, you’re brutally exhausted. The jokes that played best in the third act suddenly don’t have that expected spark. You still laugh, yet one wonders why they laughed. Much of what occurs in The House reaches a point of stupidity one hopes could never be touched, with such a high caliber cast to bolster an otherwise disappointing written slate. I’d be shocked to imagine how worse this film would’ve been had there not been as much room to improvise a little, go off the page. However, those moments are few and far between, leaving this film more in the loss column. In addition, this same drag in quality throughout essentially ruins the one great cameo of the whole feature. It’s nowhere near as funny as one would like, yet still one will wonder how much more enjoyable it may’ve been had the cameo would’ve been expanded to a larger supporting part. (D+)
“The House” opens today at most area theaters; rated R for language throughout, sexual references, drug use, some violence and brief nudity; 88 minutes.