‘The House’s casts its bets, but doesn’t cash out

The House benefits from something I am going to start calling the Caddyshack syndrome.

While it has become popularized by predominantly Will Ferrell-led comedies this century, people forget that the original people improvising a scene possibly came with the 1980 comedy classic, Caddyshack, which featured the well-trained cast consisting of Bill Murray and Chevy Chase (in his prime; also, this is a fact I cannot verify with confidence, but I can’t think of another one before it). Will Ferrell seemed to have brought it back with 2004’s Anchorman and, since then, comedies this century have relied heavily on actors and actresses going off script and saying whatever feels natural or funny.

For some reason, directors keep believing that these moments are so much funnier than the actual script, which is surprising that no writer has really taken issue when it comes to this. Sometimes this works (Anchorman and many a Seth Rogen-Evan Cohen film) but it is a risk that doesn’t often pay off (Get Hard, most of Adam Sandler’s late theatrical work).  

The House is now the latest (and undoubtedly not the last) movie to rely heavily on improvisation and, honestly, it might be the better of those movies to come out this year.

The plot features Will Ferrell in the role he has been playing ever since he took off the Ron Burgundy wig and mustache: middle-aged suburbanite who isn’t as with-it as he thinks. This time, though, he is partnered with a worthy partner, Amy Poehler, as they play parents who realize they have encountered financial straits just when the time arrives to send their daughter off to the college of her dreams. They end up receiving their answer after a trip to Vegas with their friend, the recently divorced Frank (Jason Mantzoukas). That answer: they start an underground casino.

For much of the film, I laughed. The movie benefits so well from an amazingly well-stocked cast featuring Ferrell, Poehler, and Mantzoukas, but other comedy heavyweights like Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, Rory Scovel, Allison Tolman, Cedric Yarborough, and Andrea Savage. There are even comedy players who have very minor roles, including Andy Buckley and Randall Park.

Its seems like a desperate attempt to even get one laugh out of the audience by assembling the comedy equivalent of The Avengers when it should be the case that one, two, or even three actors are enough to carry a film and the script is the machine that generates the jokes. If you don’t believe me, pick out any Woody Allen movie.

Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler do work well together and Jason Mantzoukas is infuriating in that he has yet to receive a leading-man role. I have never had a problem with Mantzoukas’ manic, unpredictable-yet-contained energy in any production of anything and The House only made me wish the focus was on him. We’ve seen the Will Ferrell-as-parent movie a dozen times before, but we have never seen the Manztoukas cries about his divorce because of his gambling addiction film. Which one of those sounds more interesting to you?

Since the movie is about a casino, we do have to have our Martin Scorsese and Sopranos shoutouts, but even those aren’t as heavy-handed as you would expect.

The main problem with the film is the same problem that occurs with many a film like this. Although the plot is quite funny, it isn’t expansive enough to support enough humorous moments. As a result, the film because tonally inconsistent in parts, especially in the middle and last act.

But, if you are going to see The House, you are going to get exactly what you want with comedy’s full house.

The film was directed by Andrew Jay Cohen and written by him and Brendan O’Brien, the same team who wrote the first Neighbors movie. They clearly know a good plot when they write one. However, they should focus more on the jokes that arise from such great premises so that they wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on the improvisation of actors, no matter how talented.

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