At the public screening of the Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler comedy The House that I attended (which was in front of a paying audience, since it never screened for critics) something funny happened. A patron sitting near the top of a fairly steep, stadium seating styled auditorium had illicitly smuggled in a tall boy of their favourite adult beverage and accidentally kicked it over about three-quarters of the way into the film. This half full can lumbered slowly, but surely down on its side each individual step of the theatre, sloshing and rocking back and forth with every tiny drop down a stair. By the time the can was halfway to the bottom, everyone in the sparsely attended theatre was watching the can methodically plod down every stair. People started cheering for the can and stopped paying attention to what was happening on screen. There wasn’t a single person – young or old – who wasn’t cheering for the can, with applause breaking out when the valiant alcoholic soldier finally reached the bottom of the stairs. It was the only remotely entertaining thing anyone watching The House saw that evening because for the rest of the night (outside of some teen girls in the far back who wouldn’t stop talking and I wasn’t remotely mad at because I wouldn’t want to pay attention to The House, either) you could have heard a pin drop from the sheer amount of people not laughing. It’s the worst film most of the cast and crew have ever been involved with and a lock for one of the worst films of the year, and possibly the decade.
Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) are flustered parents worrying about how they’re going to pay for the university education of their recently graduated teenage daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins). They have no savings, Kate (as far as I can tell from the film’s only blisteringly paced, incoherently stitched up backstory containing montage) has no job, Scott can’t get a raise, and they can’t get a loan. To make matters worse, the academic scholarship they were counting on from their sleepy suburban town’s local government has been rescinded by a loathsome town council chair (Nick Kroll, the only person salvaging their dignity here) who says he wants to keep the money to build an elaborate swimming pool for the community, but is really embezzling funds to try and impress a married woman (Allison Tolman) that he’s in love with. Scott, Kate, and Alex have apparently never thought about applying for student loans or – since Alex’s grades are so wonderful – going after one of the billion other scholarships that exist in the world, so The House enters into one of those “Idiot Plots” that Roger Ebert talked about so frequently: an idea so terrible and flimsy that it would immediately fall apart if any of the characters simply stopped to ask why they were doing it.
After a trip to Vegas with their divorced, slovenly, insolvent, gambling addicted best friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), the trio hatch a plan to open up an illegal underground casino in Frank’s house. The profits from the casino will send Alex to school and help Frank save his house and hopefully win back the affections of his ex-wife (Michaela Watkins). The trio quickly amass a large amount of cash, manage to stay one step ahead of a bumbling cop (Rob Huebel), and manage to piss off a local mobster (Jeremy Renner, who curiously only has a single scene, but the film hints at a greater significance to his part before the final version of this story was scaled way back in the editing room).
“Idiot plots” can work in comedies that keep things snappy, funny, surreal, weird, or edgy, and the core concept of The House sounds like a potentially raucous premise worth exploring. The House, which arrives in theatres drenched in a sea of flop sweat and doesn’t so much bear the scars of post-production tinkering as it boasts hacked off limbs, is none of those things. It’s so resolutely unfunny and so laboured that I wondered throughout almost the entire film if it was secretly meant to be purposefully unamusing anti-comedy trolling. I was quickly convinced that The House wasn’t that clever, and even if it was meant to annoy and produce groans and sighs, it would have at least been more interesting of a failure.
The House is the feature directorial debut of Andrew Jay Cohen, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Brendan O’Brien. The duo were previously responsible for several sketches for Ferrell’s Funny or Die website, and the screenplays for the Neighbors films and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. None of their previous scripts were made into comedic masterpieces, but at least they were decent enough time wasters. Comparing any of their other feature efforts to The House would be like comparing the enjoyment of some cotton candy at an amusement park to being forcibly told to chew on a brick at gunpoint in an abandoned factory.
Cohen films everything inexplicably in a nauseating, ugly hand-held style that makes it look at times worse than a Paranormal Activity knock-off. Scenes begin and end without explanation, and in most cases without at least a punchline to justify their existence. Clocking in at just barely over 80 minutes – not including the requisite blooper reel over the credits – The House has visibly lost half of its footage in the editing room during some misguided attempt to fix whatever went wrong, but given what stayed in the film, I’m positive that whatever landed on the cutting room floor couldn’t have been better than the direness that made it to the screen.
Almost every joke is of the variety where characters will take long pauses in hopes of selling a dying joke before explaining the joke they just said in point-by-point detail in case we lowly, humourless viewers didn’t get the gist of it. None of these jokes are funny, and weirdly the only redeeming scene in the film is an impromptu fist fight between a pair of bickering housewives. It’s not a funny scene, but at least the fight has some decent choreography and is filmed better than anything else around it in the movie.
No characters are developed or built, and I couldn’t tell you a single thing that defines Kate and Scott as people except that Scott has anxiety about performing simple math and Kate loves to smoke weed and pee on lawns when she’s wasted. I don’t care about their problems, and I cared even less about their daughter, a rallying point for the couple who has no personality or defining characteristics whatsoever other than being blonde, having glasses, and constantly wearing a sweatshirt with the name of her future academic home emblazoned on the front. What’s worse is that Ferrell and Poehler – two of the best comic talents of their generation – look bored and perplexed by what they’re being asked to do. Sometimes they’ll pause or annoyingly mug their way through bits that wouldn’t cut it as improv exercises like they’re waiting impatiently for Cohen to give them some sort or direction or material to work with.
I’m also willing to venture that there isn’t a single scene in The House that doesn’t have laughably obvious product placement from Stella Artois, Glutino snacks, or Kettle brand potato chips. It’s a film with three separate endings – one to give each villain their comeuppance and one to see Alex achieving her goals – and all of them come out of nowhere when Cohen gives up on his material once and for all and decides to mercifully put this hobbled excuse for a film out of its misery.
The mind wanders while watching something as resolutely awful as The House, and the questions raised in its wake are more interesting than anything in this unmemorable garbage fire. Do Ferrell and Poehler have debts we don’t know about like their on screen counterparts? Is someone blackmailing everyone involved? Where did all the jokes go when they tried to edit the film? Did everyone involved just do this film so they could raise the money to do something better and more artistically engaging? Was there even a script when filming started? How did things get this bad? Am I in hell? The shoddy existence of The House raises more existential questions than the current revival of Twin Peaks, but none of these questions are worth answering.