Ferrell-Poehler Comedy "The House" Loses Big

The thing about “Saturday Night Live” alums turned movie stars is that, with few exceptions, if they’re not being funny, they’ve got nothing. SNL honcho Lorne Michaels has never been in the business of cultivating serious acting talent; instances of SNL vets headlining dramatic successes (e.g. “The Skeleton Twins”) have been few and far between. Not that Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler vehicle “The House” is dramatic in the least. It’s just not funny, stranding its stars in a comedic Bermuda Triangle where they’ve nothing to do but mug for the camera in hopes of picking up stray laughs along a narrative road to absolutely nowhere.

Andrew Jay Cohen’s film follows the story of two eccentric, bordering on sociopathic parents Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) Johansen who see a college scholarship for their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) unceremoniously rescinded by a nefarious city councilman (Nick Kroll). Cohen’s screenplay does all kinds of unconvincing, unamusing backflips to justify its high concept: the only way for Scott and Kate to afford Alex’s Bucknell tuition is to start an illegal underground casino.

Jason Mantzoukas – a comedian best known from FX’s “The League” and film podcast How Did This Get Made? – co-stars as Frank, the Johansens’ gambling-addicted friend who’s going through a brutal divorce. The character should be an ideal entry point into a seedy suburban underbelly of sin; Mantzoukas’ volatile funnyman persona seems a natural for guiding the Johansens down a rabbit hole of high stakes poker and impromptu MMA fights. Instead, Frank is consistently out-weirded by Scott and Kate, with Ferrell and Poehler’s interminably obnoxious performances backing the movie into a regrettable space between bad mob movie parody and destined-for-cancellation basic cable sitcom.

The film’s flirtations with graphic violence are its most telling comedic poker face. A scene in which Scott, Kate, and Frank threaten to cut off a client’s finger for counting cards and then accidentally do cut off his finger is written surprisingly straight, the ostensible punchline coming when Scott’s face is met with a geyser of blood. Ten minutes of screen time spent building up to an image that’s only remotely funny because it features the unmistakable face of one Will Ferrell covered in crimson isn’t great. Insert a trio of non-comedians into the scene and it’s a pale mélange of unimaginative physical comedy. The film’s true self is revealed.

Ferrell, and to a lesser degree, Poehler, are fine actors, well above the “Saturday Night Live” veteran mean. But Daniel Day-Lewis would be hard-pressed to elevate Cohen’s terrible screenplay that rivals “Get Hard” as the worst thing Will Ferrell has ever said “yes” to. The upshot is a shell of a comedy that’s somehow less than its uninspired logline suggests, saddling not two but three gifted comedians with about five good lines and hundreds of bad ones. The house may always win when it comes to gambling, but “The House” loses big.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: June 30, 2017
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: Andrew Jay Cohen
Screenwriters: Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O’Brien
Starring: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll, Allison Tolman, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Jessie Ennis, Rob Huebel, Cedric Yarbrough, Jeremy Renner
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, sexual references, drug use, some violence and brief nudity)