The House

The House

When I tell you that a film with Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler isn’t very good, keep in mind that I find them both very, very funny and am predisposed to liking pretty much anything they do. So if I’m sorta down on “The House,” you have to figure that the average person with no particular feelings one way or the other about Ferrell and Poehler will HATE it. Just so you know.

“The House,” written by “Neighbors” and “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” scribes Andrew Jay Cohen (who directed) and Brendan O’Brien, has a perfectly good premise that it doesn’t know what to do with. It is this: loving but hapless parents Scott and Kate Johansen (Ferrell and Poehler) can’t afford to send their daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins), to college, and a trip to Las Vegas doesn’t improve their financial situation because, as you know (but I guess they didn’t), “the house always wins.” Well, what if THEY were the house? At the suggestion of their newly divorced gambling-addict friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), they start an underground casino to raise Alex’s tuition money.

There’s some good comic energy at first, Scott and Kate working together (not against each other) to execute their hastily conceived plan while keeping it a secret from Alex, and reining in Frank’s tendencies to spend everything they make on upgrades to his basement Vegas. Scott quickly evolves into the clueless suburban version of a casino gangster; Kate, randomly, gets hooked on marijuana. There are typical touches like Ferrell’s character being so bad at simple arithmetic that numbers make him physically woozy.

But where does it go from there? Right down the toilet. All of this is set in a quaint small town that calls itself a “village,” where a nefarious city councilman, Bob (Nick Kroll), embezzled the funds that were supposed to be Alex’s scholarship. Bob is having an affair with a fellow councilperson (Allison Tolman), and the town’s one police officer (Rob Huebel) is unsure where his loyalties should lie. These are all diversions that pad out the story without improving it. The real potential conflict — running afoul of actual bookmaking gangsters (represented by Jeremy Renner) — is introduced and eliminated in just a few scenes before our focus returns to the village’s civic corruption.

More significant than the weak story, of course, is the fact that the movie just isn’t very funny. Despite having a supporting cast of recognizable mid-level comedians (including Cedric Yarbrough, Michaela Watkins, Lennon Parham, Andrea Savage, Sam Richardson, and Randall Park), and despite the general all-in commitment from Ferrell, Poehler, and Mantzoukas, it never earns more than the occasional laugh, mostly just moments, rarely an entire scene. If I didn’t love these people, it would barely be tolerable.

ADDENDUM: I watched this movie again several months later on HBO and enjoyed it quite a bit more than I did the first time — probably a solid B. I don’t know how to account for the difference. Life is mysterious.

C+ (1 hr., 22 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some sexual references, comic violence, fleeting nudity.)