I’m “biast” (con): not generally a fan of studio comedies
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Somewhere, buried so deep within The House that even it doesn’t seem to know that it is there, is the glimmer of the hint of the seed of a dark, bitter satire on collapsing America, on the suburban malaise and economic anguish that has driven the nation collectively to despair. Desperate parents start an underground casino to pay their daughter’s college tuition, descending into a life of crime and violence that rips the veneer of respectability off the upscale McMansion lifestyles of them and their neighbors. Bizarrely, though, it was apparently the unfunny rough outline of the messy first draft of the script exploring this concept that was greenlit. More mysteriously, $40 million was handed over to someone who had never directed a feature film before in the seeming belief that he could whip some notes sketched on a cocktail napkin into a passably watchable piece of entertainment.
This failed to occur.
If I squint hard enough, I think I can just about see a metaphor for Hollywood itself in The House: hapless parents (Will Ferrell [Zoolander 2, Daddy’s Home] and Amy Poehler [Sisters, Inside Out]) utterly fail to plan in any way for their daughter’s (Ryan Simpkins: A Single Man, Pride and Glory) education, and now they think that running around making a lot of noise and behaving like idiots will solve the problem. They and their friend (Jason Mantzoukas: The Lego Batman Movie, How to Be Single) have no experience running a casino, just as director (and cowriter, with Brendan O’Brien) Andrew Jay Cohen has no experience making movies (beyond writing the Neighbors movies and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates). But bad judgment, misplaced self-confidence, and arrogant blundering will somehow still get them all through to the end, if not satisfactorily. (It’s really difficult not to see movies such as this one as evidence that Hollywood really will give any white man who expresses a desire to be a director the keys to a big-budget movie, even as it denies such opportunities to anyone else even with tons of experience.)
Perhaps the most telling illustration of Cohen’s ineptitude as a filmmaker is this: There’s a moment in The House’s trailer that made me laugh out loud, it’s such a perfect little comment on what happens when marshmallow people try to pretend they are heartless vicious gangsters. When that moment comes in the film, it falls totally flat. The bit arrives with momentum in the two-and-a-half-minute trailer. In the under-90-minutes but still overlong movie, it has no idea what it’s even doing there, not least because all of these people are actually pretty horrible, taking advantage of their neighbors for money. Except the whole shebang is so inept and so poorly conceived that it’s tough for any character to rise to a level worth complaining about. Ferrell’s dad in particular is so innumerate, so financially illiterate, that it’s impossible to imagine that he could hold a job high-powered enough to afford to live in such an enormous house. (We never learn what sort of work he does.) But that is almost the least of the problems with a movie that wants to riff on Scorsese flicks but doesn’t seem to understand what makes them so great.
As it flails around trying to find some comedy, The House occasionally decides that we will find the most unpleasant things absolutely uproarious, such as Ferrell physically attacking a teenage girl for no reason at all, and more than once. The house always wins? Oh boy, not this one.