Watching “The House” is a frustrating experience, one that’s akin to finding bits of a manuscript as part of an archaeological dig. You get flashes of the clever comedy this might have been — a funny line here, an amusing bit of business there, the occasional whiff of relevance — but it too often lumbers along, coasting on the backs of some very talented performers.
If casting alone were enough to guarantee greatness, “The House” would be all set: in addition to leads Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell and Jason Mantzoukas, the film’s ensemble boasts an embarrassment of comedy riches, including performers like Nick Kroll, Alison Tolman, Michaela Watkins, Rob Huebel, Lennon Parham, Cedric Yarborough, Andrea Savage, Kyle Kinane and Rory Scovel, to name just a few. But you have to give actors roles to play and situations that are interesting and stories that matter, and that’s more than this steadfastly average movie can bother to offer.
Poehler and Ferrell star as Kate and Scott Johansen, suburbanites who are thrilled that their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins, “Brigsby Bear”) has just been accepted to a prestigious university. Sure, it’s pricey, but their town picks the top high school student each year and covers four years of tuition — until this year, that is, when councilman Bob (Kroll) announces that they’re building a lavish new town pool instead.
It never occurs to Kate and Scott to save money by unloading their gigantic house (too much for three people, let alone two empty-nesters) or canceling their trip to Vegas with Scott’s best friend Frank (Mantzoukas), a compulsive gambler who’s been in the dumps since his wife Raina (Watkins) walked out. But winning and then losing a big stake at a casino gives the trio the idea to set up an underground gambling den in Frank’s house to make enough money to send Alex to college and to save the house from foreclosure in the hopes that Raina will return.
As comic set-ups go, this isn’t the worst one, but director Andrew Jay Cohen and co-writer Brendan O’Brien never have enough of a hold on the material, either comically or conceptually. “The House” squanders its periodic funny ideas — feuding neighbors, both male and female, get put in the boxing ring for high-stakes gambling; mild-mannered Scott is forced to become a brutal enforcer when they catch a card-counter; the rag-tag casino suddenly starts boasting neon and a waitstaff and spa — by lacking pacing or a consistent tone.
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The stakes should escalate, whether it’s Alex’s suspicion about what her parents are doing at night, or the local policeman (Huebel) figuring out what’s afoot, but one scene lazily bumps into another haphazardly and without structure or purpose. Poehler and Ferrell and the rest are certainly capable of improvising, but movies need a basic structure on which to mount those improvisations. Otherwise, it’s a series of intermittently amusing ideas that never quite lands on a narrative.
There’s certainly comedy to be found in contemporary economic anxiety — poverty was the secret weapon of “Bridesmaids” — but “The House” fritters away this notion, along with any number of other connections to reality. By the time Jeremy Renner shows up as an actual mobster threatening genuine injury, the film has become too much of a cartoonish exaggeration to support the weight of his malice. (His threats are solved with slapstick violence, and while the mounting degrees of his downfall provide a last-minute jolt of hilarity, they also represent a crazy tone shift that the movie hasn’t earned and cannot support.)
Ultimately, “The House” is a mid-summer air-conditioning delivery system that most viewers will have forgotten by the time they go back-to-school shopping. Or maybe even by the time they get to the parking lot.