“The House” has Poehler and Fer­rell but zero laughs

The Denver Post - - LIFE&CULTURE - Glen Wil­son, Warner Bros. Pic­tures By Stephanie Merry

★555 Com­edy. Rated R. 88 min­utes.

“The House” is as­ton­ish­ingly, mys­ti­fy­ingly un­a­mus­ing. With Will Fer­rell and Amy Poehler in lead roles, the com­edy could have been solid coun­ter­pro­gram­ming to sum­mer fran­chise-ma­nia. In­stead, di­rec­tor An­drew Jay Co­hen (“Neigh­bors,” “Mike and Dave Need Wed­ding Dates”) de­liv­ers one lazy sketch after an­other, man­u­fac­tured un­der the mis­guided pre­tense that lewd­ness and vi­o­lence are in­her­ently funny.

But it takes more than buck­ets of fake blood and al­fresco bath­room ad­ven­tures to pro­duce laughs.

There’s a mildly sweet story hid­ing un­der all the body flu­ids. Fer­rell and Poehler play Scott and Kate, a cou­ple whose lives re­volve around their only child, Alex (Ryan Simp­kins), a re­cent high school grad­u­ate. Alex plans to head to her dream school in the fall, though she doesn’t re­al­ize that her par­ents can’t af­ford it. In one of many il­log­i­cal plot points, Scott and Kate were bank­ing on a schol­ar­ship that their small town awards each year. Alas, the cash doesn’t pan out.

Their best friend, Frank (Ja­son Mant­zoukas), is also in a fi­nan­cial bind. Fac­ing fore­clo­sure, he needs money fast, so the three de­vise a scheme to open a gam­bling den in Frank’s roomy abode. Since the house al­ways wins, they rea­son, they’ll make loads of cash off their sub­ur­ban neigh­bors, who are clearly des­per­ate for a thrill. Once the un­der­ground casino takes off — and Frank adds fight night, mas­sage ta­bles and a Hard Rock-cal­iber pool party — Scott and Kate start em­brac­ing the crim­i­nal life.

Co­hen and Bren­dan O’Brien are cred­ited with writ­ing the screen­play, but it’s hard to imag­ine what they gave the cast be­yond the vaguest of out­lines. The di­a­logue has the feel of am­a­teur im­prov, which is strange con­sid­er­ing the many tal­ented co­me­di­ans in­volved, in­clud­ing Rob Huebel, Nick Kroll, Michaela Watkins and Sam Richard­son. Even the out­takes at the end are lame.

The height of the movie’s com­edy is a re­cur­ring bit that Scott doesn’t un­der­stand num­bers. When he re­ceives the first $50,000 bill from Alex’s new col­lege, he pan­ics, scream­ing, “$5 mil­lion?!” It’s the kind of joke that usu­ally comes with a laugh track.

The di­rec­tion is no more art­ful. Shot like a sit­com with edit­ing that high­lights the bizarre pac­ing, the movie goes all in on mon­tages to ad­vance the story.

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