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Director Andrew J. Cohen's The House is, frankly, a confusing enigma. It's a movie that not only has the benefit of sporting what is a legitimately funny high-concept plot, but also an ensemble cast featuring a collection of some of the most hilarious people currently working in the industry today. You'd think that these two things alone might be enough to give any comedy enough of a push to be considered at least above average -- but it turns out this low bar is still set just a little bit too high for the film's purposes. It ultimately comes together as a messy, stale, and forced comedy that is much less than the sum of its parts.
Based on a script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien (who legitimately found some great suburban comedy in both Neighbors and Neighbors 2), The House features what is a terrific and relatable central premise, finding a pair of parents, Scott (Will Ferrell) and Kate (Amy Poehler), freaking out about the cost of their daughter's college tuition. While they were entirely banking on young Alex (Ryan Simpkins) receiving the annual scholarship provided by the town, budget changes made by a local city councilor (Nick Kroll) completely rip this money away from them -- leaving them with nothing saved and only a few months before the start of the fall semester.
Fortunately, Scott and Kate have the exact kind of off-kilter friend (Jason Mantzoukas) who can come up with zany ideas to solve this kind of crisis, and that's exactly what he does. Following an ill-timed trip to Las Vegas, Frank -- who is going through a seriously rough divorce and has a terrible gambling addiction -- convinces the couple that what they really need to do is start their very own casino and use the profits to pay for Alex's tuition. Seeing no other choice (admittedly they don't really look for any), they wind up going along with the plot, and while it starts as an enterprise for noble purposes, it doesn't take long for things to get wildly off track and for Scott and Kate to fully adjust to their new lives as criminals.
Weird as it may sound, part of what The House suffers from is really too much recognition of its own good idea -- which makes the film play out more like a series of beats than a fleshed out narrative. Essentially, the movie is too aware of itself as a parody (not in a meta way), and as it moves through the various tropes it feels like it's just checking things off of a list, particularly because there aren't any consequences and the stakes are kept incredibly low. So when the movie plays out its own version of "Fight Night," or Scott, Kate and Frank have to deal with a cheater, it's hard to laugh because it all feels too forced and artificial. And when you combine those elements with extremely thinly scripted narratives following city council corruption and the cop (Rob Huebel) investigating the illegal casino, it makes the whole thing just feel underwritten.
In that same conversation, you can definitely sense Andrew J. Cohen's experience as a first time director, clearly led by a "let funny people be funny" filmmaking philosophy. It's an understandable impulse when you have a cast including not only Ferrell, Poehler, Mantzoukas, Kroll and Huebel, but also Lennon Parham, Cedric Yarbrough, Michelle Watkins, and Andrea Savage, but every group scene winds up being so overloaded with jokes that it creates a high level of improvisation transparency -- where you can see the wheels turning in the actor's head before they say something funny. It not only messes with the overall timing in any given sequence, but also just takes you out of the film.
The House actually wrapped production all the way back in January of 2016, and when a comedy is in post-production for that long, it's typically a sign that the filmmakers and the studio are having a tough time finding the funny movie to construct out of all of the footage. They had a full year and a half, but it still comes up empty. The film isn't without its highlights, as it does successfully go to some extremes to get some solid laughs, but walking out of the theater you can't help but think, "Why wasn't that better?"