"The House" tells the harrowing tale of one young woman's struggle to attend Bucknell University, despite the criminal behavior of her well-meaning — but truly incompetent, irresponsible and insane — parents. "Saturday Night Live" alumni Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell pair up as the Johansen parents in this film from "Neighbors" and "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates" screenwriters Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, with Cohen making his feature directorial debut. While there's no shortage of comedy talent on screen in "The House," there's a dire lack of actual laughs to be found in this strange shell of a movie.
Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) live in a sprawling suburban McMansion and managed to get their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) into a good college. But they can't get a bank loan, and live in a world where financial aid doesn't seem to exist. We're to suspend our disbelief for the sake of the premise, so that we can get to the illegal casino the Johansens decide to operate in the home of their divorced, gambling-addicted friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas).
The concept seems based on the idea that it might be funny to see Will Ferrell as a suburban dad do a take on Robert De Niro in "Casino," with ostentatious sunglasses, gory violence and all. That concept stretches about as far as an "SNL" sketch, and Cohen and O'Brien have done the bare minimum to flesh out the rest of the film. A running theme about Kate's penchant for marijuana leads one to believe that the writers may have been similarly impaired.
Instead of writing actual characters, they've hired a gaggle of beloved comedians to do bits based on stereotype and persona, and have concocted a cockamamie suburban crime story that manages to be both bizarre and incredibly thin.
There's an over-reliance on the natural likability of Poehler and Ferrell, and the unlikeliness that they would behave so scandalously. We're supposed to titter when they call their teen daughter a "bitch" to her face, and a running gag involves Scott throwing Alex's teenage friend violently to the floor. A disturbing date rape joke made in the first five minutes of the movie signals the type of lazily written taboo comedy that awaits.
There is something to the idea about a bunch of bored, frustrated suburbanites trading book club and fro-yo for high-stakes betting and fight clubs in a neighbor's ad-hoc Sin City. But that's quickly eighty-sixed to chase down a nonsensical plot about a councilman (Nick Kroll) embezzling money from the city.
The highest praise one can give "The House" is that it is just barely watchable. The film is badly stitched together with hatchet-job editing attempting to mask a clear lack of coverage, and the comedy offers the suggestion of a laugh instead of the real thing. In this case, don't bet on "The House."
Rating: R, for language throughout, sexual references, drug use, some violence and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: In general release