Review by Jacquelin Hipes
The cost of sending your kids to college is going up: an increase of as much as 10% over the last five years according to College Board, which is no joking matter. Some families cover the expense through scholarships, others by taking out loans. But what if neither of those options were feasible, or worse, unexpectedly stripped away after you’d been counting on them to carry you through? Whatever your first thought is, it’s almost certainly more pragmatic than that of Scott (Will Ferrell) and Kate Johansen (Amy Poehler) when the local scholarship money for their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) is allocated for a new town swimming pool instead. After almost hitting the jackpot in Las Vegas they decide, along with long-time friend and gambling addict Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), to open up an illegal casino of their own in his home, which looks pretty sparse after his wife files for divorce. The ensuing hijinks in The House are more entertaining than the looming prospect of crippling debt but, to be fair, a lot of other things are too.
With only a month to raise $500,000 (half for Alex’s college tuition and half as Frank’s cut to pull himself out of foreclosure and win back his wife) the trio’s initial plans for a few gambling tables and flashing lights quickly spiral into a much larger operation. When two gamblers bring a neighborly dispute over an unreturned leaf blower into the casino they’re encouraged to duke it out rather than break it up: with the house overseeing all bets, of course. The backyard hosts an all-hours pool party and bedrooms are converted into spas. When one man is accused of counting cards a mishap with an axe earns Scott a new nickname: “the Butcher”. Unfortunately this cheater has connections with a nearby crime boss who, along with a crooked town councilman (Nick Kroll), manage to provide enough conflict for things to stay interesting.
Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler both meet individual expectations, although they lack the desired comedic chemistry as a duo. It can be difficult to compete with Mr. Ferrell’s brash delivery and Ms. Poehler manages it well, yet they never quite seem to click. Ryan Simpkins isn’t given much to do as the daughter, but as her friend Rachel, Jessie Ennis is on the receiving end of the film’s best physical comedy. As the aforementioned crime boss, Jeremy Renner stops by for a great little cameo. Considering the overall absurdity of the situation at hand he could have hammed it up even more and still fit right in. Only a few jokes were unequivocal duds; one conversation between Alex and her friends about the difference between rape and date rape got a resoundingly uncomfortable silence in return. For queasy audience members there are some limbs that get hacked off along the way, but the result is much more in line with the Black Knight of Monty Python fame rather than James Franco in 127 Hours.
Writer-director Andrew J. Cohen’s previous script credits include Neighbors, Neighbors 2, and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. The House stands out as the strongest offering in his raunchy comedy oeuvre, for better or worse. Your appreciation will vary predominantly on how much the comedic stylings of Ferrell/Poehler appeal. For those who are fans of one or both performers, The House is a suitable vehicle for the type of humor we’ve come to expect from them—and R-rated comedies—over the years.