There are plenty of mainstream comedies that could be called instructional — intentionally or not, they come to serve as a reference point for how to be a funny friend, or a funny group of friends, or a funny workplace. But some comedies, including the new Will Ferrell–Amy Poehler vehicle The House, feel like a blueprint for a kind of aspirationally wacky endeavor — in this case, starting an illegal casino in a soon-to-be-foreclosed house. Ferrell himself became a box-office commodity with an epitome of the instructional comedy, Todd Phillips’s Old School, which still serves as lifestyle justification for a generation of stunted former frat guys. In five years, after The House has been accidentally seen by millions on cable, it’s easy to imagine a spate of bored suburban copycats being fodder for the “crazy news” section of your local news.
The House attempts to ground its self-made suburban mobster premise in some relatable stakes. Poehler and Ferrell play Kate and Scott, middle-class parents who need to find a way to put their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) through college after a local scholarship fund falls through. Their friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) is going through it as well: His wife (Michaela Watkins) is asking for a divorce after his gambling addiction left them in financial ruin. One positive side effect is that Frank knows everything about gambling, and after a trip to Vegas the trio are inspired to start their own operation, figuring that if “the house always wins,” it’s in their best interest to be the house.
Writer-director Andrew Jay Cohen (a writer on the Neighbors films and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates) has put together elements for a pitch-black social satire: a harmonious suburban town that seems about to burst from pent-up rage, the inevitable discovery that it’s all too easy to become the bullying oppressor you originally set out to circumvent. But his first misstep is failing to give Poehler and Ferrell anything in the way of character or relationship to each other — making the rookie mistake of assuming you can have these two very funny performers stand next to each other, call each other husband and wife, and it will be both believable and instantly hilarious. That thinness extends to the ensemble, who should all have understandable motivation for descending into a life of crime and vice so quickly — as soon as the film gets its half-hour of slackly edited exposition out of the way, the casino is successful almost immediately.
The result is an unfocused film that’s always about two maddening steps from being actually amusing. The movie never really seems to get a handle on what it’s sending up. Is it Poehler and Ferrell’s mid-life hubris? Small-town corruption, via Nick Kroll and Allison Tolman’s canoodling councilpeople? All these performers are given decent setups, but the script loses interest in anything that starts to look like a comedic through line. Mantzoukas probably comes out looking the best, which is impressive since he is saddled with the bulk of the film’s explanatory voice-over. There’s at least something recognizable in Frank, his laser-focus talent for anything he deems fun and his absolute incompetency with everything else. That’s at least a character trait, unlike Scott’s deeply unfunny numbers dyslexia.
But that also leads to the film’s biggest miscalculation. It wants the casino to look too fun — it’s a fantasy first, a comedy second. The movie skips past the obvious comedy of soccer parents trying to reenact Casino, with all the sad bluster and awkwardly shed repression that entails, and goes right to the Sopranos’ theme-song cue. Good news, though, for whatever empty-nest couple reenacts this harebrained scheme first: There’s a decent chance their version will be funnier.