Despite the old adage about the house always winning, this Will Ferrell-Amy Poehler comedy is a complete loser, so excruciatingly bad that it makes you cringe while watching it. Any picture that encourages you look forward to “Daddy’s Home 2” to provide a respite must be beyond the pale.
The idiotic premise concocted by “Neighbors” writers Brendan O’Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen (the latter also serving as director this time around, flaccidly) has Ferrell and Poehler playing Scott and Kate Johansen, a dumb-as-nails suburban couple who smother their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) with affection and are determined that she should attend the college of her choice—Bucknell (a distinguished institution that should be embarrassed at allowing its name to be used in this context).
When their crooked town councilman (Nick Kroll) cuts the scholarship money they’d been planning on from the town budget, they have to scramble to replace the funds on their own. Their solution is to transform the nearby home of their dissolute friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) into an underground gambling den, a Los Vegas lite establishment that will rake in scads of cash in a matter of weeks from the town’s residents, who apparently have nothing better to do than toss away everything they have (which seems, on the basis of this telling, to be a great deal) on slot machines and craps.
That last word is especially appropriate given what follows. The movie soon turns to such unlikely sources of mirth as staged fights between antagonistic neighbors on which players can place bets. (The one involving Lennon Parham and Andrea Savage as dueling housewives seems to go on forever, and is utterly repulsive.)
Even those bouts seem positively benign, however, beside such scenes as the one in which Poehler debases herself by squatting in the hedges to urinate, or the moments that involve bodily injury. In one case, Ferrell uses an axe to chop off a guy’s finger, leading to a fountain of fake blood, and in another a crime boss played by Jeremy Renner (a good actor presumably paying off some terrible debt) has his arm chopped off (more gushing blood) and then is actually burnt up. What could be funnier?
The level of miscalculation in “The House”—a word used quite deliberately, since one of the mirthless notions in the script is that Scott is totally inept with numbers—is really astronomical. Scott and Kate are so stupid that the obvious joke, that their level-headed daughter is the real adult of the family, is undercut (a single-cell organism would be smarter than they are). Frank is such a repugnant character (much is made of the fact that his wife, played by Michaela Watkins, has dumped him, and one can easily understand why)—and Mantzoukas so frantic in his attempt to get laughs—that a viewer might be forgiven for averting his eyes whenever he appears.
The ancillary figures are no better. Kroll is forced into unconscionable mugging as the sleazy councilman, and one feels sorry for Allison Tolman, who must confront the fact that the reactions of her character—the co-worker he’s having an affair with—veer so radically from scene to scene that they make her seem emotionally schizophrenic. The same might be said of Rob Huebel as the top cop, a clueless dolt who in the end helps to engineer a happy resolution in which Scott and Kate suffer no consequences for their multiple felonies and Frank and his wife reconcile with dreams of insurance fraud dancing in their heads.
After suffering through “The House”—which is ugly visually as well as narratively (Clayton Hartley was production designer and Jas Shelton the DP)—you might scratch your head trying to think of one even remotely pleasant moment in it. You’ll come up empty. Oh, wait—there is the moment that “The End” appears on the screen. Unfortunately, the words are followed by a series of blooper out-takes that are no better than the movie that’s preceded them.