The set-ups for three jokes (two of them bad and one of them good) essentially define The House, a raunchy comedy that is - judging by the credits, during which there is a parade of unfunny bloopers - largely improvised and only vaguely amusing on occasion. The first arrives within five minutes of the movie's starting point, but we must provide the tiny bit of plot the provided prior to the joke's delivery as build-up: Scott (Will Ferrell) and Kate Johansen (Amy Poehler) and their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) have just opened a congratulatory letter informing Alex of her acceptance at a university. A party ensues, at which Alex voices the concern of sexual assault to her best friends (played by Christina Offley and Jessie Ennis). One of those friends then makes a joke about the nature of date rape.
The fact of the joke being about date rape is not, in itself, offensive, despite the low-hanging fruit of the target of the joke. One must remember that comedy can be found in anything (generally without exception) as long as the comedian finds some absurdity within that thing. This is not what screenwriters Andrew Jay Cohen (who also directed the movie) and Brendan O'Brien have done here. The set-up of the joke exploits a genuine concern across college campuses, and the punchline dismisses even the concept of that concern. This is the kind of movie that dislikes its audience, and that brings us to the second joke, which, of course, also demands a bit of set-up: Alex' tuition, to be paid in full by a scholarship, is thrown out by the city council, whose chairman (played by Nick Kroll) wants part of the money for himself and part of it for a water park.
That leads into the general premise of the movie, which finds Scott and Kate inspiring their gambling-addicted friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) to open up a casino in his home for the purposes of paying Alex' tuition for all four years of college and to get his own life (which has gone downhill because of that addiction) back on track. It's an illegal operation, of course, leading Officer Chandler (Rob Huebel) to investigate the goings-on. He finds Frank in the woods searching for a rolled-up stack of hundred-dollar bills that has gone missing, and the encounter ends with Frank whipping out his iPhone to record the officer just in case. The officer switches instantaneously between threatening violence upon Frank and half-heartedly apologizing for it. The joke is obvious: Excessive police force is a thing in the news right now.
The tone, again, is one of dismissal of the genuine concerns regarding excessive police force, as if the absurd thing here, according to Cohen and O'Brien, is any confrontation of those concerns. That's a 180 from the most successful joke here, which once again requires some build-up: The organization of this illegal operation attracts those who might be inclined to cheat during the card games, which leads Scott and Kate to become violent enforcers and message-makers. Longer story short: They end up accidentally cutting off a patron's middle finger. Everything about this situation is absurd and, admittedly, quite amusing, both in the naive bluffing that leads to the amputation and its aftermath (Scott, drenched in the blood that sprayed out of the man's wound like out of a firehose, ambles desperately into the crowd of other patrons and out into the street).
That whole set-up and payoff certainly signify something wrong with the movie, which is obsessed with physical violence as if it's mere slapstick buffoonery, but it is also in line with the R-rated pleasures of the potential of this premise. None of that potential is explored in the piffle that has been created, despite Ferrell's reliable goofiness (Scott is physiologically terrified of math or numbers of any sort), and the movie is remarkably cheap-looking, too, with editing hackery and sub-commercial cinematography that suggests that Cohen, in his directorial debut, has no idea how to block or frame a studio comedy. Everything about The House is generic, except for the stuff that isn't, which is a problem. This is a troubling movie.
Will Ferrell (Scott), Amy Poehler (Kate), Jason Mantzoukas (Frank), Ryan Simpkins (Alex), Nick Kroll (Bob), Allison Tolman (Dawn), Rob Huebel (Officer Chandler), Christina Offley (Davida), Jessie Ennis (Rachel), Rory Scovel (Joe), Lennon Parham (Martha), Cedric Yarbrough (Reggie), Kyle Kinane (Garvey), Michaela Watkins (Raina), Gillian Vigman (Becky), Steve Zissis (Carl), Jeremy Renner (Tommy).
Directed Andrew Jay Cohen and written by Cohen and Brendan O'Brien.
Rated R (language throughout, sexual references, drug use, violence, brief nudity).
Released on June 30, 2017.