PLOT A suburban husband and wife start an illegal casino.
CAST Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas
RATED R (comedic violence and gore)
BOTTOM LINE Ferrell and Poehler have been dealt a bad hand in this botched comedy.
In “The House,” Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler play Scott and Kate Johansen, two parents who try to pay for their daughter’s college tuition by running an illegal basement casino. It’s a fairly dubious premise, even for an insanity-in-the-suburbs comedy like this one, but we’d be willing to buy it. All we need is the right scene, and a little bit of magic from the Ferrell-Poehler team.
Instead, the Johansens’ light-bulb moment comes when a gambling-addict neighbor, Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), laments that the house always wins. Says Scott, “What if we were the house?”
That’s it — the pivotal scene this whole movie depends on, and it’s about as weak as they come. Despite its talented stars and an excellent supporting cast, “The House” never manages to rise above its implausible story and charmless characters. What’s worse, it tries to cover for its shortcomings by engaging in the kind of R-rated violence made popular by “The Hangover.” It doesn’t work. The result is a flat-footed comedy with an unattractive mean streak.
Several problems are built into the script by Brendan O’Brien and director Andrew Jay Cohen (both of Seth Rogen’s “Neighbors” movies). For starters, there’s the fact that the Johansens weren’t cheated or robbed of their savings; these middle-class folks simply forgot to put any money aside. It’s a little hard to sympathize with parents so selfish and thoughtless, but your heart will certainly go out to their daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins).
It’s their neighbor Frank who enlists Kate and Scott to help run his basement casino. This only lowers the stakes — why isn’t “The House” set in the Johansens’ house? — but it gives Mantzoukas (TV’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) a chance to show off his improv skills. The money rolls in easily at first, but then things turn violent: Friends place bets on their neighbors’ fistfights, Scott accidentally chops off a cheater’s finger and a conniving town supervisor (Nick Kroll) turns feral. Jeremy Renner plays a mobster who will meet an agonizing fate.
It’s all meant to be wild and crazy, but somehow it seems simultaneously nasty and dull. “The House” could have been a winning little comedy, but instead it rolls snake eyes.