The House, starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, may appear to be a silly summer comedy, but it’s one built on a depressing premise. The stars play Scott and Kate, suburban parents of a daughter who’s about to head off to college. There’s a hitch, however: the scholarship they’re counting on — one dependent on the whims of a sleazy town bureaucrat (Nick Kroll) — falls through. Scott and Kate need to make a lot of money in a short period of time, so what do they do? They start an illegal underground casino with Scott’s sketchy friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), of course. Hijinks ensue as they rake in money, lose some of their dignity, and get busted.
Watching this film — directed by Andrew Jay Cohen and co-written by Cohen and his Neighbors partner Brendan O’Brien — it’s easy to start dreaming of a socialist society. Basing a whole comedy (and a not particularly funny one) around how challenging it is for a middle-class family to pay for college just highlights what a bummer the American educational system is. In a just world, a film like The House wouldn’t exist. But the world isn’t fair, the middle class gets screwed, and so we’re left with a drab comedy in which the desperation of paying for something that should be a right is played for laughs.
This isn’t to say that the proceedings are entirely unfunny. There are some chuckle-inducing moments, most involving Scott’s inability to do math: he initially interprets the existence of his 401(k) account as meaning he has $401,000 in the bank, and he first reads his daughter’s tuition statement as $50 million (private college is exorbitantly expensive, but it’s not quite that much… yet). Ferrell sells these lines with goofy conviction. He’s still a bit of a man-child but now he’s a father of a child about to leave the nest.
It’s no surprise when the casino starts attracting shady figures, but the film does have a surprising amount of violence. In one absurd scene, Scott chops off a cheater’s finger and the blood spews in a torrent reminiscent of the ill-fated Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Less successful is an earlier scene in which the casino becomes a site for fight betting and two bitchy neighborhood women start punching each other. The fight scene goes on too long and feels mean-spirited – these women haven’t been given any qualities beyond being annoying suburban neighbors, and it seems wrong to root for either of them to be beaten up.
The site of the casino poses some problems for the film. Part of what makes casinos such a rich setting for films is their flashiness and color. Yes, the casino here is located in Frank’s house, so it never becomes quite as glitzy as the casinos we see in Las Vegas set films, but it’s also photographed without any real zest. The House is a drably shot tale of decadent activities, one that never seduces viewers into its illegal setting. There’s also the headscratcher of just how Scott, Kate, and Frank were able to get the casino up and running in the first place. Frank’s home seems to go from barren to hopping with gamblers practically overnight. While there’s some commentary on suburbia to be made here – everyone wants to participate in an illicit activity if it’s in their own backyard and all their friends are doing it – it’s hard not to wonder just how much work went into the process of setting up this operation.
It’s best not to get too mired in the logistics of The House, though, and it’s ultimately frustrating to watch two performers as funny as Ferrell and Poehler work with such bland material, even if it’s occasionally fun to see them act like high rollers. Thankfully, unlike too many comedies today, The House has a fleet runtime (just under an hour and a half). This isn’t a casino many will want to stay in for long.