As they prepare to send their daughter to college, Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) suddenly have their scholarship offer revoked. Accordingly, they set up an illegal casino in the suburbs.
It’s fair to say that the fratty, improvisational brand of comedy minted by Will Ferrell and co — and popularised by the Apatow crowd — doesn’t necessarily seem built to age with its audience. But fast-rising writing duo Brendan O’Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen seem to have found a way to wring gently subversive, childish laughs from purportedly mundane adult situations. First came the bong-hitting generational mash-up of the Bad Neighbours films and now we get The House: a likeable, if occasionally strained, comedy about a pair of misbehaving empty nesters.
Yes, it occasionally feels like a remixed version of some of its stars’ other hits — there’s a healthy dash of Old School’s juxtaposed suburban mayhem, for starters — but it mostly turns these echoes into a virtue, nailing a relaxed, daft mix of crime and comedy that, as we’ve learned from the Baywatch reboot, isn’t nearly as easy as it looks. It also helps that the script (written by both O’Brien and Cohen and solely directed by the latter) has a silly, graspable simplicity. Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler play Scott and Kate Johansen, buttoned-up parents facing up to the fact that Alex, their only daughter, is about to head to college. Just as they grapple with this new freedom (“Get your passport ready,” mumbles Scott uncertainly, “because we’re going to Fucktown”), Bob (Nick Kroll), the slimy town council leader, announces that, due to budget cuts, Alex’s scholarship has been rescinded. After being refused pay rises and loans, they hit on an implausible plan after a trip to Vegas: they’re going to open an underground casino in the house of their recently separated gambling- addict friend, Frank (Jason Mantzoukas).
There’s something to be said for a comedic safe bet.
The fact that you can probably guess most of the coming comic beats — the home casino expanding to include lavish pool bars and illegal fist fights, Scott and Kate taking to their thrilling new lives as shady gambling impresarios, an investigation into the strange goings-on by Kroll’s evil principal stand-in — doesn’t really make them any less enjoyable. Obviously, the cast (generously sprinkled with plenty of, “Oh it’s them!” comedy actors from Veep, Transparent and beyond) is a big part of this. Poehler and Ferrell may rarely leave third gear but they’re a good match, delivering the expected off-the-cuff weirdness as well as clownish physical moments (a hungover shopping trip with their daughter is particularly effective).
That said, it’s Mantzoukas (recognisable veteran of The League and countless other sitcom bit-parts) who, as kinetic, fast-talking Frank, is The House’s not-so-secret-weapon. When the casino owners tangle with local criminals (including Jeremy Renner in a brief, bloody cameo) and ineptly torture a card-counter, it’s Frank’s queasy retching and failure to play the tough guy that truly sells it.
As is often the way with comedies built on profane improvisational non sequiturs, not all of it works. The first act has more than a few clunkers (would anyone really confuse a 401(k) pension plan with a $401,000 bank balance?) and there’s a decidedly strange, late-stage Terminator spoof that seems to belong in an entirely different film. But mostly the highs outweigh the lows. And, in gambling terms, there’s something to be said for a comedic safe bet.
Old School with added poker chips? Perhaps. But this Ferrell and Poehler-powered comedy blockbuster has big laughs, an enjoyably grisly streak, and a film-stealing turn from Jason Mantzoukas.