The House and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by Andrew Jay Cohen
While everyone else was looking forward to yet another Spider-Man movie or that new Thor film, I was waiting on bated breath for the new Will Ferrell comedy! Now sure, the guy hasn’t been at the top of his game lately, but more often than not he still manages to have a certain amount of charm and charisma that keeps his more mediocre movies at least somewhat entertaining (*cough* Daddy’s Home *cough*) so at the very least his presence usually means I won’t be tearing my seat up in frustration while sitting in the theater. What really sold me on this movie though is that it co-stars Amy Poehler who along with Kaitlin Olson is one of the most underrated comedians out there and really SHOULD be headlining big blockbusters along the current greats like Kevin Hart and Melissa McCarthy. Not only that, but the premise was actually pretty interesting with its sights firmly aimed at the ridiculousness of college tuition fees and the burden it places on students who want ta chance at great opportunities and the parents who are stuck with the extortionist bills. Being one of those unlucky bastards still paying off his student loans, I can certainly relate! Does this movie manage to take full advantage of its extremely talented cast and solid premise to deliver one of the funniest films of the year, or have the filmmakers squandered a fantastic opportunity to make something great? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with the mild mannered middle class Johansen family, made up of Scott, Kate, and Alex (Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, and Ryan Simpkins), taking a tour of Alex’s dream college that they can JUST barely afford since she won a local scholarship for being such a good student. Of course, the city council led up by Bob Schaeffer (Nick Kroll) has decided to divert the scholarship funds towards making a gaudy and impractical local swimming pool (complete with water slides and a food court) w which gives Scott and Kate only three months to come up with tuition money or else Alex can’t go to college. Fortunately, they have a friend named Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) who’s teetering on the edge of total instability after his wife left him and comes up with an idea to not only make them the money they need for Alex’s education but to get him some extra cash so the bank doesn’t foreclose on his house and hopefully get his life back on track enough to win over his soon to be ex-wife. The plan? Use his absurdly large house to set up an illegal casino for all the local housewives and working dads (and vice versa) to unwind and lose a shit load of money! If Scott and Kate can just hold it together for a month, they can make just enough money to pay for Alex’s tuition and close up shop before the one cop in town (Rob Huebel) or even that asshole Bob Schaeffer find out what they’re doing. Can Scott, Kate, and Frank keep things from getting out of hand in the high stakes world of illegal gambling? Look, we’ve ALL seen Casino so it can’t be THAT hard, right?
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I thought this movie was funny as hell! It’s not quite CLASSIC status as some of Ferrell’s earlier work or the way Parks and Rec was for Poehler, but it’s another solid entry in both of their careers and I had a great time watching it! What keeps this movie from reaching that level is a problem that sadly infects a lot of modern day comedies which is pacing and story structure; particularly as we get towards the second half of the film. If they had just kept it together and toned things down a bit instead of going as over the top and slap dash as it did in its final act, this could have been one of the best films of the year simply because of how well-crafted and genuinely heart felt a lot of this material is; not to mention how well it manages to take on both shitty educational institutions and shitty government policies that squeeze the public to the breaking point. Hell, that’s pretty much the reason we watched Breaking Bad, and everyone says THAT was great!
As with most comedies, trying to describe what exactly makes one funnier than the other is VERY subjective and risks going into spoilers in order to explain some of the funnier gags, but what I can tell you about this film is it’s pretty much what you’d expect from the two leads. Amy Poehler is very much in Leslie Knope territory with her character, though with her naivety and genuine belief in the goodness of others being mostly replaced by common sense and practicality. Will Ferrell is similarly a much more believable version of the character he’s played in films like Get Hard and Daddy’s Home where he’s the lovable dad who’s kind of a dumb shmuck as well, though I think they run the HE’S BAD AT MATH joke a bit too much into the ground. For the most part (and more so in the first half than the second), the movie finds a perfect balance between over the top wackiness and real life suburban awkwardness that grounds this movie just enough or the conflict to have some degree of resonance. Sure, the amount of money Alex needs per semester is PRETTY damn steep (fifty grand is high even for PRIVATE colleges) and I have trouble buying that Sallie Mae or some other banking corporation wouldn’t jump at the chance to give a middle class white family a high interest student loan, but even with that it’s still a pretty damn relatable situation and I think it’s enough to justify the two of them going for this wacky idea.
Honestly, I really liked how much effort they put into making the idea of an illegal in-house casino work in the first place. I can’t say I have first-hand knowledge of how to run a business like that (how were they planning on laundering THAT much money once they closed up shop?) but the relatively small scale of the operation as well as the way the film walks you through the steps of how its set up did a pretty fantastic job of creating a believable fiction for the movie to work off of. Sadly though, they can’t keep it up for the whole film and it goes too far into outright absurdity in the second half. The initial set up with homemade craps tables and one or two card dealers makes sense for such a small town and for a setup out of a suburban home. After a certain point however, they expand to include PROFESSIONAL tables (ones that would cost THOUSANDS of dollars and couldn’t possibly be delivered discretely), a staff in the dozens all wearing uniforms, massage parlors, an OUTDOOR CLUB (in the middle of the day!) and all sorts of outlandish stuff that just distracts from what the central conceit was in the first place and ultimately undercuts a lot of the humor that was working so well in the first half with the initial setup. There’s a certain level of charm that is lost when they go from a suburban family’s interpretation of a seedy business to something that looks straight out of the Bellagio and couldn’t POSSIBLY be within their budget even if they were making money hand over fist. It’s not like they’re in a PARTICULARLY rich neighborhood, so where is all this money coming from!?
On top of that, the plot itself goes completely off the rails in the third act with too much happening all at once and no room for any of it have the slightest bit of impact. There’s a celebrity cameo in here as some sort of mobster who has a vendetta against the casino, and while they are ABSOLUTELY hilarious (the funniest moment in the entire movie involves him using a knife), they’re also completely wasted as they’re out of the movie almost as soon as they come into it. This is also the same five minutes of screen time that Alex comes back into the picture in a significant way which SHOULD have had at least some emotional resonance, but because we are moving at breakneck speed to tie up all the loose ends, she gets lost in the shuffle and simply doesn’t have anything to do despite being present for most of the finale. There’s simply too much hand waving over and over again as we barrel towards the conclusion and it ends on rather unsatisfying note considering how much work they put into the first half of the movie. It’s yet another decent comedy that feels the need to end in a poorly thought out and not particularly funny heist which is becoming a REALLY obnoxious trend recently. It belies a lack of conviction from the filmmakers who don’t feel they can end this on any note other than ridiculousness (we have to keep building it up more and more or else people will lose interest in our story!) which feels particularly out of place here considering how much effort they put into setting up the story initially with the conflict about paying for college and the central conceit of the casino being meticulously laid out.
There’s not a whole lot to say about yet another Will Ferrell comedy that hasn’t been said already. I believe it’s a lot stronger than his last two efforts (Get Hard and Daddy’s Home) mostly due to the focused narrative in the beginning and the incredibly strong supporting cast, but other than that I doubt this will be the one to change your opinion on the guy one way or the other. There’s probably not enough there to justify seeing it in theaters even if it’s your kind of movie, but I certainly had a great time watching it and I only wish it hadn’t sputtered out at the very end which is a flaw of too many modern comedies. You could say that a Will Ferrell/Amy Poehler comedy is a… safe bet? …Sorry.