I’ve never found Will Ferrell funny, so I couldn’t tell you whether The House (now entering its second week in theaters) constitutes a superior or inferior Ferrell comedy. I can say, however, that the film confirms why I don’t find Ferrell funny and why I’ve come to dread seeing him in movies.
The House aggressively attempts to get you to laugh at every single moment—it often feels like an assault. It contains no recognizable human behavior that might provide context for the humor, bombarding the viewer instead with constant one-liners and pratfalls. It seems to have contempt for its own premise, which is simply the means to an end. The jokes were largely generated through improvisations from Ferrell and the rest of the cast and they feel like it—the film putters from one gag to another without anything to hold them together. The formlessness and aggression seem intentional, a reflection of Ferrell’s comedy style.
In The House, Ferrell plays a suburban father whose daughter gets accepted to an exclusive university. He and his wife (played by Amy Poehler) don’t have the money to pay their daughter’s tuition, and when their town rescinds its scholarship offer, they find themselves in a desperate situation. A loser friend (Jason Mantzoukas) devises a scheme wherein he turns his house into an illegal casino and manages it with Ferrell and Poehler; he figures they can make $500,000 in a month, enough to cover the daughter’s tuition as well as his own gambling debts. The scheme is more successful than the characters imagine, as the townspeople come to love the casino and Ferrell and Poehler prove ruthless casino managers. The long-married couple even show themselves to be adept at torture when they catch a patron cheating at a card table.
A.O. Scott, in his New York Times review, praised The House for its underlying sense of pathos, drawing attention to the desperation that inspires the main characters to enact their scheme. But I don’t see it. Any detail that might convey the characters’ distress—such as Mantzoukas’s addictions to gambling and pornography—gets turned into a joke before it can register dramatically. This is symptomatic of the film’s overall approach, which finds the actors ad-libbing one-liners on top of any complication that gets introduced and effectively burying the plot.
Consider the way The House depicts the subject of torture. When Ferrell, Poehler, and Mantzoukas first arraign the cheater, they’re clueless as to how they should handle him. They prance around Mantzoukas’s garage, doing a poor job of acting tough (and their mugging seems to go on forever), but they frighten the cheater anyway when Ferrell accidentally cuts off the man’s middle finger with an axe. Blood spurts out of the man’s hand for an extended length of time, causing the main characters to freak out (this seems to go on forever too). The next day Ferrell experiences anxiety-induced hallucinations related to the incident, but he miraculously regains his composure when he learns that the local gamblers have become afraid of him as a result of the finger-chopping incident. Within minutes, there’s a scene where he effectively plays the tough guy to scare a friend into paying the money he owes the casino.
None of this adds up to a coherent characterization, and the filmmakers attempt to paper over the inconsistencies with more one-liners. Some of them are funny in the moment, but they aren’t funny enough to disguise the ramshackle manner with which they’re designed. The story is similarly slapdash. The filmmakers introduce complications involving a vigilant suburban councilman who wants to shut down the casino and a gangster who wants to avenge the chopping off of the cheater’s finger, yet these register as desperate efforts to move the movie forward. They don’t jive with the humor, which constantly stops the storytelling dead in its tracks. The House wraps up all too neatly, as the heroes steal back the money that the councilman tries to confiscate from the casino, pay the daughter’s tuition, and resume their normal lives as though none of the complications had happened in the first place. Any pathos the film might have introduced was for naught, resulting in a dismayingly lightweight experience.