When a studio declines to show a movie for critics in advance these days, you probably can be assured they know it won’t be getting rave reviews. In the case of the new comedy The House, which opened over the weekend sans any critics screenings, that turned out to be true.
The audience also seemed to smell a trainwreck as Deadline projected a dismal three-day gross of $8.7 million, well below expectations for a laugher starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler. So, having it caught it yesterday in a sparsely populated showing at my local multiplex, why am I more disappointed than anything else? At its core, The House has a great premise that is ripe for a very funny and pertinent social satire about the lengths parents have to go to just to send their kid(s) to college. With that kind of education costing in some cases well into the six figures, it could bankrupt some people, and The House sends a nice, well-meaning suburban couple, Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) Johansen, to desperate measures just to fulfill what they see as their parental duty.
Discovering they don’t have the cash to send poor Alex (Ryan Simpkins) on to an institution of higher learning, they make the mistake of following their friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) — who is going through a divorce due to a severe gambling addiction — to Vegas, where they proceed to blow whatever college fund they have built to that point. So what to do when “the House” takes all your money? You become “the House,” at least in the scheme devised by Frank whereby he convinces Scott and Kate to partner on an illegal underground gambling casino in the seemingly Vegas hotel-sized basement of his home.
Magically transformed into a suburban Caesars Palace with gaming tables, slot machines and even a nightclub comedian, the House premise immediately sails way over the top by shredding any ounce of credibility in order to serve writer (with Brendan O’Brien) and debuting feature director Andrew Jay Cohen’s worst comedic instincts. Not to mention Ferrell and Poehler, who seem to have been encouraged to just throw everything against the wall to see what sticks. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), in no time the film becomes a satire of Martin Scorsese’s 22-year-old Casino, in which Robert De Niro played a take-no-prisoners casino operator. Ferrell’s meek character takes on that tough-guy persona as their betting facility turns into a fight club and worse, mixing graphic violence (body parts fly and blood spurts everywhere) with attempted humor.
Cohen just can’t seem to make the tonal shifts work, and the film falls prey to some cringe-inducing scenes in its second half. The idea of having to become badass criminal parents in order to finance their only daughter’s education is absurdly funny on its own, but unfortunately our stars are asked to take it to extremes. Considering Cohen was a writer of both recent Neighbors movies with Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, as well as Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (an example of a raunchy summer comedy I thought actually worked), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that The House would offer more of the same out-of-control set pieces. The sad fact here is The House needed a helmer to rein it in and not let the jokes completely drown whatever credibility might have been there when the idea was pitched.
Ferrell, Poehler and the cast — which also includes Nick Kroll as a city official out to shut them down, Allison Tolman, Michaela Watkins and even Jeremy Renner in an unfunny cameo as a real mobster — do what they can, but it looks like they simply were encouraged to make it up as they went along. Too bad for a nifty premise, poorly executed.
Producers are Joe Drake, Jessica Elbaum, Nathan Kahane, Adam McKay and Cohen. Warner Bros released the New Line Cinema production, which also is just the latest in a long line of movies to have an executive producer credit for the current U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. He will have to mint a lot of fresh cash to make up for the inevitable box office losses on this one.
Are you seeing The House? Watch my video review above and let us know what you think.