Imagine you’re some nice married person living in some nice American suburb, working to raise funds for your kid’s college tuition. Suddenly you find yourself face to face with a rough-looking guy buckled to a rolling chair in the basement of your friend’s house, which also happens to be the illegal casino you’re running to help pay for said tuition. And while you’ve never actually owned a casino, your friend is telling you that card counters like this guy have got to be stopped.
So even though that tiny voice in your head says, “Think about this again,” you don’t, because you’re all adults and how bad can this get? You’re just going to scare him a bit. Except now this dude is giving you the finger — with both hands. That’s mean. You don’t like the way that feels. So you, your partner, and your friend taunt him a little. You call him weird but not totally offensive names.
Leather jacket dude doesn’t seem fazed and calls you all soccer moms. And while you don’t know that 401K doesn’t mean you have $401,000, you do know you’re not a soccer mom. You also know that hatchet on the wall is gonna scare him. So you wave it around a little to get him nervous. But now your friend and partner want to wave it around too, so they both grab it. There’s tugging, there’s shouting, and suddenly you’ve chopped off one of the guy’s middle fingers. He’s screaming, you’re screaming, everybody’s screaming. You’ve got a fountain of blood spurting directly at your face and you’re crying because all you wanted to do was pay for your kid’s college tuition, and now you can’t get this guy’s severed finger to stay on his hand.
That’s The House in a nutshell.
The House applies a formulaic plot to a compelling premise
The House follows a broad narrative pattern familiar from movies like the Neighbors films and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates — all of which The House director and co-writer Andrew Jay Cohen had a hand in writing: A hapless (though largely harmless) person or group faces an unexpected life disturbance that forces them to take ridiculous, risky, but sort of fun measures, until things reach their breaking point and the ride comes to a screeching halt. It’s the “that escalated quickly” approach to comedic storytelling, and The House leans into this formula, albeit within a clever central premise.
Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler star as Scott and Kate Johansen, sweet, well-meaning parents who learn their daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins), has been accepted into her dream school. But with no savings and a city council–sponsored scholarship that’s dissipated, they quickly realize they might be the barrier to Alex actually attending said dream school.
Following a nearly lucrative trip to Vegas, their gambling- and porn-addicted friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) convinces the couple to turn his foreclosed home into a decked-out and very illegal mini casino. Complete with massage tables, a comedy club, a nail salon, a “fighting ring,” and eventually an outdoor pool area, it’s the perfect place for a town full of uptight suburbanites to let loose. Thus begins Scott and Kate’s rise as suburbanite gangsters — until the real gangsters show up to crash the party.
The predictability of The House’s narrative arc is slightly disappointing: Ferrell and Peohler’s comedic histories and Cohen’s experience working with Judd Apatow set expectations for comedic ingenuity that the film doesn’t really deliver on. The House’s premise is clever, and Poehler and Ferrell’s delivery does a lot to sell the jokes, but in the end these characters mostly do and say exactly what anyone who’s seen a “that escalated quickly” comedy expects they will: get wasted, slow-motion party, rub money all over themselves, wield blowtorches, pee in inappropriate places, and eventually succeed in sending their kid to school. Basically, they mess things up and then put them back together again.
The chemistry between Poehler and Ferrell is the backbone of the film
Still, The House’s clear dedication to the onscreen relationship between Poehler and Ferrell as two happily married parents compelled by their desire that their daughter do better than they did shouldn’t go unappreciated. And while their relationship does mirror aspects of the central couple Cohen wrote for Neighbors, Ferrell and Poehler bring a genuine relatability to the film’s more ridiculous moments (like a slow-motion screaming match across a craps table). Cohen also cleverly utilizes his own creative theme of “couples making bad decisions together” to ensure that when Kate and Scott come out on the other side of this fiasco, they’re still people viewers will like. The Johansens are an all-American couple who are trying to do the best for their daughter and each other — they just happen to be doing it by turning a friend’s home into a den of vice.
Poehler and Ferrell have both molded their signature comedic styles into viable brands over the years, and those brands are central to their characters in The House. Ferrell’s over-the-top reactions and habit of spitting out random, totally inappropriate words to answer questions is on full display here, as is Poehler's charming straight-man condescension and ability to both play on and play up someone else’s jokes. But Ferrell never loses his signature naive sincerity, while Poehler — even while high — remains the more realistic harebrained logician. Meanwhile, Mantzoukas’s seemingly inexhaustible manic energy, even when he’s stabbed, keeps things from ever feeling too nice or grounded.
The leads’ easy comedic chemistry is central to The House’s success, helping keep the characters at the center of this harebrained scheme engaging and endearing. Even as they’re roughing up their neighbors, pushing their daughter’s friends across the room, or destroying store items in a hungover haze, the Johansens still feel pretty likable.
The timeliness of The House’s central joke works in its favor
Just as essential to the likability of the Johansens — and by extension The House — is the timeliness and relevance of the movie’s central premise.
Sending kids to college is becoming an increasingly bigger burden for American families, as the path to higher education faces challenges to federal aid funds, long-term personal saving, and tuition increases. At both private and pubic universities, a bachelor's degree can cost more than a first home or car. The 2015 National Student Financial Wellness Study, which surveyed approximated 18,795 undergraduate students at 52 colleges and universities across the country, found that seven in 10 students reported feeling stressed about their personal finances, while nearly 60 percent of the respondents said they worried about having enough money to pay for school. A 2012 Sallie Mae study found that 60 percent of parents thought the most difficult aspect of sending a child to college was figuring out how to cover the costs of attending.
In making the Johansens’ struggle to pay for their daughter’s $50,000 yearly tuition central to its comedic premise, The House smartly leans into viewers’ anxieties around higher education and its attendant economic struggles. While there’s nothing directly humorous about the struggle to pay for college, The House does what good comedy does: It uses humor as a coping mechanism. In the midst of what feels like a dark time, The House offers relief in its assertion that it’s okay to laugh at the lengths to which we must go to get by — up to and including an accidentally severed finger.