The House, the new dark comedy starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, has so much potential, it’s difficult to dislike it. The premise is smart and the film certainly isn’t afraid to go to places, violent and dark, not usually seen in mainstream comedies. However, the laziness and conceit of the writers handicaps the film’s impact.
When Scott and Kate Johansen (Ferrell and Poehler) realize that a scholarship intended for their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) to attend the very expensive, Bucknell University has dried up, they are faced with the reality of $50,000 a year tuition. Even though they seem to have the perfect suburban life, they soon realize they have very little money at all, and couldn’t possibly pay this. Inspired by a trip to Las Vegas with their sketchy, needy neighbor Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), where winning seems so easy, except when you compete with “the house” the three of them team up to create their own secret casino in Frank’s suburban home. Luckily Frank’s bitter, soon to be, ex-wife Raina (Michaela Watkins) has taken most of the furniture, so there is plenty of room for gaming machines and black jack tables.
The despair and desperation, when the Johansens realize they can never afford the tuition, that sets this subversive tale off is certainly intriguing. Furthermore it propels the first act forward without ever being preachy or sentimental. For a while this understated social satire works and helps make up for leaps in the progress of the casino that defy even cinematic chronology. However as the story takes outrageous turns and the behavior of the Johansens becomes more heinous; supposedly to keep the casino working and for them to earn tuition, their original desperation and the ridiculousness of $50,000 a year tuition gradually get lost. Instead The House becomes about shock value and not character motivation that would make someone do something shocking. Arguably this works for a while, but the film, for me becomes disappointing in the third act, when the central plot points and action are driven by ancillary characters who are part of an extraneous subplot and not the Johansens.
Still, The House is mostly funny and its two leads are great and have fantastic chemistry. The film is getting a bad rap (except, ironically The New York Times Review) with critics, and the studio thought they had a stinker on their hand, so they didn’t allow preview reviews. Yes, the film has problems, but with another draft of the script and a stronger third act, The House could have been a biting, hysterical satire.