At times, you watch a bad comedy and see hints of the good comedy it might have been. In the case of “The House,” a crude, slipshod, tonally uneven, once in a while chuckle-worthy farce, you have to look very hard and imagine a great many better jokes — just what the film’s co-writer and director, Andrew Jay Cohen, should have been doing.
“The House” stars Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, together on the big screen for the first time, as a stuck-in-a-rut suburban couple who open an illegal casino to pay for their daughter’s college tuition. It’s one of those concept comedies built around a sketchbook frame that asks its stars to do a fair amount of improvising — a technique that turns the shooting of a movie into a glorified pitch meeting, since the whole thing is predicated on the premise of “Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler! Are you kidding me? Just let ’em go, and they’re going to kill it!” Ferrell and Poehler are inspired comic actors, but with rare exceptions that’s not how making a truly funny movie works.
“The House” is a satire of economic desperation, like “Fun with Dick and Jane” updated to the age of the collapse of the middle class. But that’s just the excuse. It’s really a comedy of suburban rage — or would be, if it weren’t so random and contrived. Ferrell and Poehler play Scott and Kate Johansen, whose daughter, the level-headed-beyond-her-years Alex (Ryan Simpkins), has just been accepted to Bucknell University. The family thought they were in line for a scholarship from the Fox Meadow city council, but that money has dried up (the local residents would rather build a swimming pool), and they agree not to reveal their predicament to their beloved daughter.
It’s when Scott and Kate take a trip to Vegas along with their ne’er-do-well best friend, the about-to-be-divorced Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), who’s in the midst of slipping into a sinkhole of his own, that a lightbulb goes off: In gambling, the ultimate cliché — because it happens to be true — is that the house always wins. So what if they became the house?
If you hear that idea and think, “Okay, but that’s not actually very funny,” you’d be right, and the film seems aware of this, since the whole setting up of the casino in the basement of Frank’s sparsely furnished bachelor colonial, and then the putting of the plan into play, happens virtually overnight. Just like that, they’ve got a blackjack table, a…