I could easily start this review with any number of house or casino-related puns but that would require the long 30-second strain of bothering to come up with something creative or funny – easily a more concentrated effort than anything associated with The House. What had the clear potential to be a biting satire on the pathetic student loan crisis in the United States—a crisis that plagues even the most well-to-do middle class families (a.k.a. the film’s audience)—instead tosses everything of comedic, insightful, or (worse) relatable possibilities into a bonfire in favor of tired, annoying vomit/gore/piss/drug “jokes.”
After their daughter is accepted to the college of her dreams, Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler discover that they cannot afford tuition (no use pointing out their character names – they are clearly playing up their own shtick). Having lost a local scholarship opportunity, they blow the rest of their savings in Vegas and are left at a disappointing impasse. When a close friend (Jason Mantzoukas) suggests opening up an illegal casino to raise the funds (relying upon the old adage that the house always wins), the three soon find themselves in conflict with a neighborhood of psychopaths, a corrupt local politician (Nick Kroll), and a deadly mobster (Jeremy Renner – oddly, the closest avatar to an erect, bipedal homo sapien in the film).
The House has such little respect for its audience’s intelligence that it feels the need to follow up many of its “jokes” with secondary explanation “jokes” (a recent trend in modern comedies that deserves a fate far worse than this film’s destined obscurity within a rubble of disposable Netflix options). You didn’t get a punchline due to it containing more than three syllables? No worries! A character will follow it up with a commentary on why it should be funny. This trend undermines any remote prospect for the “joke” to breathe or land. Amy Poehler is peeing outside! Thank god the characters are there to explain to us why this is supposedly funny!
This also brings up another current trend that the film overuses in spades – the hyperbolic contradiction. This is when a character states something exaggerated about themselves and is immediately undercut with a truism. This can work when used minimally with well established or properly set up characters but The House primarily utilizes it as a lazy method for exposition. Heck, to define any of the figures in this film as “characters” is hyperbolic in its own way. These are cloying caricatures of human beings. When the aggregated sum of the entire cast’s mental capacity falls short of Inspector Clouseau, a line is crossed into something quite pitiable.
You may ask, why is this a problem? It’s a comedy after all. Shouldn’t the characters be funny, even as caricatures? That’s not to say that this approach has never worked, but they cease to be relatable figures. The best comedy is derived from a semblance of realism – situational, reactive conditions that an audience can empathize with. The House has a clear set up for this but fails to act upon that stage. Take the similarly toned National Lampoon’s Vacation. Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold may have his silly, exaggerated moments but they come from a place of truth. As the film progresses and his blood pressure begins to rise from the strain of the obstacles surrounding him, we as an audience eagerly await his eventual explosion because we can empathize with his plight. Once he does explode and his follow up actions break the laws of reality, the audience can accept the preposterous because they’ve been with him the whole time.
To manage an effort to say that The House is a waste of time feels in itself a waste of time. The cast is clearly more talented than anything remotely present here. The only microscopic blessing is Jason Mantzoukas who manages a chuckle here or there. Jeremy Renner’s appearance, despite his billing, is nothing more than a straight man cameo (the only straight man in the film – conceptually, not sexually). Take any of his single wisecracks from the Avengers films and you would gain a laugh bigger than anything in The House. In fact, I think I’ll take my own advice.