There is a biting satire about perceived notions of middle-class safety crossing with the seedy underworld of casino debt and underground racketeering, but it requires a careful hand that no one starring in or working on The House can adequately provide. Co-written and directed by Andrew Jay Cohen (Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Neighbors) making his debut at the latter, The House settles for the appearance of being strung together by an abundance of lame Vine videos and outtakes you'd be more content with finding during the film's end credits, much less the actual film.
Sidebar: The House does indeed include a barrage of and bloopers during its end-credits.
The film revolves around Scott and Kate Johansen (Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler in this year's oddest, most unlikely movie-couple), two square parents that are living vicariously through the academic successes of their teenage daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins). Their ineptitude at saving money, however, puts their ability to send Alex away to an expensive private school in jeopardy, with the news coming after a crushing blow to Scott's surprise that a 401k doesn't mean one has $401,000 in their bank account.
Scott and Kate enlist in their help of their gambling-addicted friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), who is in the middle of an ugly divorce and a soon-to-be-foreclosed home. Deciding to help his friends and make use of all the empty space in his house since his wife took the furniture, Frank comes up with a plan to run an illegal, underground casino out of his home with a stretch-goal of $500,000 in profits. The money would be split between the two parties so Frank can get his life back on track and Scott and Kate can put Alex through college.
The two recruit everyone they know in town to serve as the gamblers, which makes the sleazy town councilman (Nick Kroll) grow suspicious of why his usually loyal citizens have neglected to show up at the weekly town-meetings. As evident by not only the trailer but conventional moviegoing wisdom, trio of entrepreneurs run into trouble in the form of cheaters, hot leads from cops, and general incompetence, most of which shockingly being solved with a great deal of bloodshed. Scott and Frank become a little too inspired by the climactic moment in Martin Scorsese's classic gambling epic Casino where Robert De Niro's Sam Rothstein and his associates deal with a card-counter by way of a hammer. Scott prefers to use an axe to somewhat intentionally chop a cheater's finger off with blood spewing everywhere.
The House's unevenness in being a comedy filled with more penis-jokes than this year's other vulgar failure Fist Fight as well as including more fake-blood than your average horror film is mostly obscured by the film's reliance on lame jokes. Will Ferrell plays the worst rendition of his bumbling archetype and Amy Poehler's comic talent of being zippy and awkward falls flat as she has no one capable of reciprocating or fueling her silliness. The two are the most mismatched comic duo of the year, which results in the somewhat-humorous Mantzoukas picking up the slack as well as Lennon Parham, who plays a very funny twist on the middle-aged suburban woman.
Parham is more or less an indication of what The House could've been had it not opted for what we've come to routinely expect from these medium-budget, medium-scale, low-risk, high-reward comedies. Even a private moment between Scott and Kate that has them lamenting how they played by the rules of life up until this point and are disappointed with where it got them could've brewed some seriously compelling and subversive domestic prospects. This material is begging to be satirized in a meaningful manner and it unfortunately stalemates by allowing third-rate jokes and ribald situational antics to rise above any kind of cogent wit.
Hard to believe Cohen, who did so well with infusing Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising with thoughtful themes and strong humor, craps out on his first directorial effort with the bare-minimum. The House is an unfortunate misfire, and extends Will Ferrell's depressingly long streak of lackluster comedies to four going all the way back in 2013 with Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Poehler and Mantzoukas will rebound, I'm sure; it's Ferrell who is starting to concern me at this point.