In this would-be hip and edgy R-rated comedy, Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler play Scott and Kate Johansen, a loving suburban couple who are flabbergasted when they learn they can’t afford to send their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) to the primo college to which she’s been accepted. What to do? Their divorced, lonely, gambling-addict friend and neighbor Frank (the always welcome Jason Mantzoukas) hatches a scheme to turn the basement of his practically empty house into an illegal, full-on Vegas-style casino. They get in way over their heads, which also appears to be the case with a number of talents mired in this frantic misfire of a raunchy comedy.
Considering the skills and charm of Poehler and Ferrell, more than sufficient talent is in place for what could have been a pointed satire on greed, the absurd costs of higher education in the U.S. and our national obsession with success and vulgar flash. But for all the movie’s f-bombs, Poehler’s peeing-in-pubic moment and the deliberately over-the-top violence, it all feels stale and a little pushed.
Back to the plot: The Johansens and Frank join forces and the joint blows up so big so fast that the new high rollers keep piling on all sorts of nightclub-type attractions to lure bigger and bigger crowds. But all the crazy money, free-flowing booze, high-stakes card games and violence bring down the wrath of a local mobster (Jeremy Renner) and a do-gooder local politician (Nick Kroll). The nice, funny, slightly boring middle-aged Johansens begin dressing like Vegas kingpins, adopt the nicknames “The Burner” and “The Butcher” (for reasons we won’t spoil) and go all Scarface on their neighbors who try to cross them or welch out of deals.
Ferrell is at his funniest when he shucks his dad persona and goes for swagger. The immensely funny and usually bang-on Poehler is fine but doesn’t really show us anything we haven’t seen her do before. Other comedy aces also struggle to turn up the juice, including Rob Huebel (Transparent), Allison Tolman (Fargo), Steve Zissis (Togetherness), Sam Richardson (Veep), Michaela Watkins (Casual), Andrea Savage (also Veep) and Lennon Parham (Veep again). Too bad, because the basic idea thrown down by cowriters Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, screenwriters of Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and both Neighbors movies, could have kick-started the actors and spun the weathervane of a plot in some interesting directions. Cohen, making his feature debut, doesn’t yet have the chops to fully finesse the Johansens’ merry slide into hell, and those jokes about college campus rape and the scenes of violence perpetrated by and on the Johansens don’t help. As the daughter of Ferrell and Poehler, Ryan Simpkins (Brigsby Bear) radiates a freshness and grounded quality that makes her a standout. But it’s down to the resourceful Mantzoukas to score the big laughs, and he often does—mostly by creating a funny, panicky, believable guy out of a caricature.
The House isn’t built on the strongest foundation but, for most of its 88 minutes, its terrific cast helps gloss over some of the glaring fissures.