THE HOUSE

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - Plot As they pre­pare to send their daugh­ter to col­lege, Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) sud­denly have their schol­ar­ship of­fer re­voked. Ac­cord­ingly, they set up an il­le­gal casino in the sub­urbs. Jimi Famurewa Verdict Old School with added poker chips?

di­rec­tor An­drew Jay Co­hen cast Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Ja­son Mant­zoukas

IT’S FAIR TO say that the fratty, im­pro­vi­sa­tional brand of com­edy minted by Will Ferrell and co — and pop­u­larised by the Apa­tow crowd — doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily seem built to age with its au­di­ence. But fast-ris­ing writ­ing duo Bren­dan O’brien and An­drew Jay Co­hen seem to have found a way to wring gently sub­ver­sive, child­ish laughs from pur­port­edly mun­dane adult sit­u­a­tions. First came the bong-hit­ting gen­er­a­tional mash-up of the Bad Neigh­bours films and now we get The House: a like­able, if oc­ca­sion­ally strained, com­edy about a pair of mis­be­hav­ing empty nesters.

Yes, it oc­ca­sion­ally feels like a remixed ver­sion of some of its stars’ other hits — there’s a healthy dash of Old School’s jux­ta­posed sub­ur­ban may­hem, for starters — but it mostly turns these echoes into a virtue, nail­ing a re­laxed, daft mix of crime and com­edy that, as we’ve learned from the Bay­watch re­boot, isn’t nearly as easy as it looks.

It also helps that the script (writ­ten by both O’brien and Co­hen and solely di­rected by the lat­ter) has a silly, gras­pable sim­plic­ity. Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler play Scott and Kate Johansen, but­toned-up par­ents fac­ing up to the fact that Alex, their only daugh­ter, is about to head to col­lege. Just as they grap­ple with this new free­dom (“Get your pass­port ready,” mum­bles Scott un­cer­tainly, “be­cause we’re go­ing to Fuck­town”), Bob (Nick Kroll), the slimy town coun­cil leader, an­nounces that, due to bud­get cuts, Alex’s schol­ar­ship has been re­scinded. After be­ing re­fused pay rises and loans, they hit on an im­plau­si­ble plan after a trip to Ve­gas: they’re go­ing to open an un­der­ground casino in the house of their re­cently sep­a­rated gam­blin­gad­dict friend, Frank (Mant­zoukas).

The fact that you can prob­a­bly guess most of the com­ing comic beats — the home casino expanding to in­clude lav­ish pool bars and il­le­gal fist fights, Scott and Kate tak­ing to their thrilling new lives as shady gam­bling im­pre­sar­ios, an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the strange go­ings-on by Kroll’s evil prin­ci­pal stand-in — doesn’t re­ally make them any less en­joy­able. Ob­vi­ously, the cast (gen­er­ously sprin­kled with plenty of, “Oh it’s them!” com­edy ac­tors from Veep, Trans­par­ent and be­yond) is a big part of this. Poehler and Ferrell may rarely leave third gear but they’re a good match, de­liv­er­ing the ex­pected off-the­cuff weird­ness as well as clown­ish phys­i­cal mo­ments (a hun­gover shop­ping trip with their daugh­ter is par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive).

That said, it’s Ja­son Mant­zoukas (recog­nis­able vet­eran of The League and count­less other sit­com bit-parts) who, as ki­netic, fast-talk­ing Frank, is The House’s not-so-se­cretweapon. When the casino own­ers tan­gle with lo­cal crim­i­nals (in­clud­ing Jeremy Ren­ner in a brief, bloody cameo) and in­eptly tor­ture a card-counter, it’s Frank’s queasy retch­ing and fail­ure to play the tough guy that truly sells it.

As is of­ten the way with come­dies built on pro­fane im­pro­vi­sa­tional non se­quiturs, not all of it works. The first act has more than a few clunkers (would any­one re­ally con­fuse a 401(k) pen­sion plan with a $401,000 bank bal­ance?) and there’s a de­cid­edly strange, late-stage Ter­mi­na­tor spoof that seems to be­long in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent film. But mostly the highs out­weigh the lows. And, in gam­bling terms, there’s some­thing to be said for a comedic safe bet.

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