'The House': Film Review

Proof that 'The House' doesn't always win.

Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell try to pay for their kid's college with a homemade casino in Andrew Jay Cohen's directing debut.

A couple of desperate, super-square parents embrace their inner badass in The House, turning a friend's abode into a full-service casino to raise around 500 grand in a few weeks. Sound unlikely? You don't know the half of it. Having penned two surprisingly funny parents-gone-wild hits with writing partner Brendan O'Brien (Neighbors and its sequel), Andrew Jay Cohen makes his directing debut with this variation on the theme. But the third time is anything but charmed for this luckless effort, which is unlikely to return even close to what producers expected when they teamed Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler with the successful screenwriters.

It's telling that Warner Bros. is sneaking this release out sans critics' screenings despite its well-liked stars: This House will likely collapse under its word-of-mouth burden.

Where Neighbors stars Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen played new parents, comically unsure they were equipped to care for a newborn, Poehler and Ferrell's Kate and Scott Johansen are old hands, the kind of sweet dorks who believe they're their daughter's best friends and may actually be right. Much in the picture's first half-hour puts one in mind not of the earlier films' rite-of-passage friction but of "why isn't this funny?" star vehicles about middle-aged misbehavior like 2010's Date Night. It might help, this time around, if we believed an ounce of the setup.

The couple's daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) is about to graduate high school and has been accepted by her first-choice university. But her upstanding parents, with their large and comfortable home, appear not to have even thought about tuition during her youth. They're breezing along, expecting her to get a full scholarship, and they're right — until they aren't: The village of Fox Meadow traditionally sends one of its young grads off to college for free, and Alex is chosen to be that girl. But a weasely councilman (Nick Kroll) decides those funds would be better spent on a town pool, and the scholarship is canceled. Cue some less-funny-than-sad scenes in which Scott and Kate beg for raises, loans and new jobs to no avail.

While we're chuckling about the state of America's middle class, the couple's friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) — enjoying his own comic value as a gambling- and porn-addicted burnout whose wife has left him — has a brainstorm: The three should transform his emptied-out house into an underground casino, inviting bored neighbors over and milking them for a few hundred grand. (He even installs five wall safes, explaining exactly how much each holds, so we can track their progress toward their goals.)

Early on it's revealed that Scott is a disaster with numbers, breaking out in a sweat when asked to add and easily mistaking thousands for millions. It's best at this point for viewers to temporarily embrace that innumeracy, because anyone who cares even a tiny bit about math will find the rest of this plot too absurd to contemplate. Unless Fox Meadow is home to quite a few Google stockholders, and Frank's home is much bigger than it seems, the scale of money-making and spending we're about to witness simply does not compute.

Set it aside. More problematic is that the film arguably gets to its midpoint before eliciting a single laugh. As they realize how much cash they're raking in, the three buddies start looking to Casino for lifestyle tips. Kate rediscovers her love of weed; Frank acquires a get-my-life-back swagger; Scott ... well, Scott looks like Will Ferrell was given five minutes and told, "be a cool gangster, make something up."

Scott accidentally becomes The Butcher, an enforcer collecting what gamblers owe the three partners. And while some moments of out-of-proportion violence will get viewers laughing (the best of them involves a much-abused Jeremy Renner, in a cameo as an honest-to-goodness mobster), the more cliched bits of gangsta attitude accompanying them (think a way-watered-down version of Office Space's fax-smashing scene) may harsh the buzz.

At this stage, it's fruitless to complain that the plot developments that ruin all this fun make absolutely no sense in law-enforcement terms, and that our heroes' solution to their dilemma is stupider still. Better, perhaps, just to note that, at a couple of points in the film, a viewer might imagine this scenario playing out with teenagers at the wheel, kids running a gambling operation under their parents' noses in the spirit of Risky Business and trying to pay for the college educations those grownups can't give them. As very funny people are running around onscreen doing very unfunny things, it's hard not to be distracted imagining how much better that other movie might be.

Production companies: Gary Sanchez Productions, Good Universe, New Line Cinema, Village Roadshow Pictures
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll, Jeremy Renner, Ryan Simpkins, Allison Tolman
Director: Andrew Jay Cohen
Screenwriters: Brendan O'Brien, Andrew Jay Cohen
Producers: Andrew Jay Cohen, Joe Drake, Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Nathan Kahane, Adam McKay, Brendan O'Brien
Executive producers: Bruce Berman, Richard Brener, Michael Disco, Toby Emmerich, Marc S. Fischer, Chris Henchy, Steven Mnuchin, Spencer Wong
Director of photography: Jas Shelton
Production designer: Clayton Hartley
Costume designer: Christopher Oroza

Music: Andrew Feltenstein, John Nau
Editors: Evan Henke, Michael L. Sale
Casting: Allison Jones

Rated R, 87 minutes