Any time you bring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler together in a film, you’re going to have some laughs. The problem with “The House,” though, is that those laughs don’t come nearly as often as viewers would like. At some point, “The House” stops being a raunchy comedy and, instead, becomes a dark (and surprisingly bloody) commentary on the failed American middle class dream. It just doesn’t bring the funny.
#1: Even Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler can’t make “The House” funny
For most moviegoers, the idea of combining Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler together in one comedy is going to be worth the price of admission. And, for the first 20 minutes of the film, there’s the faint glimmer of hope that the two characters they play – the married couple of Scott and Kate Johansen – will turn this into a funny suburban farce. The two are desperate to raise enough money for their daughter’s college tuition, and have stumbled on the idea of running an underground casino in a neighbor’s house.
But then something happens – the film stops being a silly movie about suburban parents with first-world problems and careens wildly off the track. The whole premise of turning a giant suburban house into a casino is not funny in and of itself, so director Andrew Jay Cohen amps up this premise by turning this casino into a version of suburban hell. Moms in yoga pants face off in Fight Club-like duels. Dads start snorting cocaine. And, of course, there are the inevitable prostitutes and other hangers-on that you’d expect at any seedy casino.
And it all happens so fast – before you can blink, the whole house is outfitted with gambling tables and the action starts. Along the way, there are lame math jokes (you see, Will Ferrell is a smart, successful suburban dad but can’t do any math!) and jokes about living in the ‘burbs. But don’t blame Ferrell and Poehler – the material is weak, and even two gifted comics can’t turn this movie around.
#2: “The House” becomes a bleak, bloody ode to suburban rage
At some point in the movie, it’s almost as if director Andrew Jay Cohen had an epiphany – let’s make this film much darker and much bloodier. At some point, the two goofy suburban parents transform into hardened criminals – Amy Poehler has a dope habit and Will Ferrell becomes a mafia-style enforcer called “The Butcher.” As if to reinforce this point, theme music from “The Sopranos” plays in the background.
And it turns out that all the people who lived in this nice, genial suburban neighborhood (“Fox Hollow”) are actually a bunch of debauched libertines. At a moment’s notice, they turn into gambling, drug-using, sex-addled fiends. The local police seem, at best, inept. The local politicians are corrupt and untrustworthy. And normal, everyday people turn callous. Violence – and blood –seemingly courses through this version of suburbia.
Describing this dark turn in the movie, The New York Times called “The House” a “dark, startlingly bloody journey into the bitter, empty broken heart of the American middle class.” And that’s exactly what you have – a tale of social despair. This is what happens when the system no longer works. What once might have been just farce turns into dark, biting satire.
At which point, you have to ask: Is this really what director Andrew Jay Cohen had in mind? Presumably, people wanted to see a quirky, goofy movie with lots of laughs. They might not be prepared for this dark turn – and certainly not for Will Ferrell calling himself “The Butcher.”
#3: “The House” tries to wing it on acting talent alone
Of course, critics can be forgiven for going overboard on their negative assessment of the movie. After all, newspaper film critics are experiencing a bit of white-collar, suburban rage themselves these days. One day, they are world-renowned film critics, the next day, they are scrambling to get more likes on their film review website than some teenager writing about movies in his (or her) parent’s basement.
And, in this case, the film critics weren’t even invited to an initial screening. Thus, some critics were making some snide comments about the film being “sneaked” into cinemas, while others went into the film fully expecting a dumpster fire of a movie.
And, in some ways, the mainstream media critics are right. “The House” boasts some fine acting talent (including Jason Mantzoukas as Frank, the neighbor with both a gambling and porn addiction), but seems to lack everything else for box office success – like a script. The characters are never fully formed, to the point where you don’t even know their names.
There are a lot of different directions this film could have gone. It almost seems like it was rushed to the big screen, because many of the plot elements were never fully fleshed out.
For example, why exactly are Scott and Kate having so much trouble handling the college tuition when they seem to be living in a gigantic house? Just sell the house, pocket the money, and move somewhere cheaper. And how is it possible that two suburbanites just snap so completely – we’re never really given any narrative framework to understand how and why Scott and Kate turn into pot-smoking, violence-prone suburbanites.
Maybe it was all meant to be very, very funny in some twisted way. But here’s the thing: you can’t wing a movie on acting talent alone. The movie clocked in at less than 1 hour and 30 minutes, and even that time seemed stuffed with comic outtakes at the very end. There’s just very little here. Characters come and go, and we don’t really know why. It doesn’t matter, though, since it’s the composite picture that’s supposed to be funny, of suburban life gone very, very wrong.
What we do have is very dark – lust, greed, corruption, cocaine and brawls. “The House” will bring you face to face with the dark underbelly of American middle class life. Behind all the nice houses and all the fancy cars, there’s apparently a lot of suburban rage, just waiting to be let loose on the world. It’s safe to say that “The House” doesn’t bring the funny.