“The House,” a new comedy starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, has arrived in theaters without advance screenings for critics. I know better than to take it personally when this kind of thing happens, but I do often wonder why it does happen. Usually the studio (Warner Bros. in this case) thinks it has a turkey on its hands but sometimes it doesn’t know quite what it has and sneaks an interesting movie into theaters more or less by mistake. That seems to have been the case this time.
Based on trailers and the durable, slightly stale charm of its stars, “The House” might be mistaken for a genial, silly movie about nice people making questionable decisions. Instead, it is a dark, startlingly bloody journey into the bitter, empty, broken heart of the American middle class, a blend of farce and satire built on a foundation of social despair.
It all starts innocently enough. Scott and Kate Johansen (Ferrell and Poehler) are visiting Bucknell University with their daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins). Mom and Dad are lovey, clingy, goofy Gen-X parents, and their kid is a high-achieving, deadpan millennial. Some borderline-inappropriate jokes are cracked and you brace yourself for 90 more minutes of semi-awkward, underwritten, marshmallow-soft humor featuring people who have been funnier elsewhere.
But then Alex loses her scholarship and her parents face a not-all-that-exaggerated version of the struggle that confronts so many families.
“It’s $50 million!” Scott exclaims when he sees the tuition bill. The poor math skills that seemed at first like an arbitrary character trait were more likely invented to enable that very joke. It might as well be $50 million. Suddenly this couple, with a big house in a pleasant, generic suburban town, find themselves in a state of abject desperation.
So they team up with their pal Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) whose gambling addiction has destroyed his marriage and his self-esteem. He hopes to win back his estranged wife, Raina (Michaela Watkins) and persuades Scott and Kate to open an illegal casino in his half-empty mini-mansion. The business plan is straightforward: The house always wins.
If “The House” had been made in the ’70s, it would have reveled in the grimness of the Johansens’ circumstances and exploited the moral tawdriness of their response to it. What is most unnerving about the way their story is presented here — Andrew Jay Cohen directed, and wrote the script with Brendan O’Brien — is the absence of that kind of dramatic intensity. Scott and Kate do some terrible things and induce their friends and neighbors to misbehave in sometimes frightening ways. Scott mutilates someone with an ax. More than one person, actually. In addition to blackjack and roulette, the casino features an occasional fight club, in which upstanding folks pair off and beat each other bloody as their fellow burghers wager money on the outcome.
The thing that will dismay some tenderhearted viewers — and that may have spooked the distributor — is the film’s steely refusal of hypocrisy. You wait for the moment of comeuppance or redemption, for the restoration of right and wrong, but no such moment arrives. The pop-culture references and musical cues that pepper the action are not as ironic as they may seem. Scenes from “The Walking Dead” and snatches of Snoop Dogg’s “Gz and Hustlas” and the “Sopranos” theme song provide clues about the reality that Kate and Scott are only partly aware they inhabit.
The town’s political leadership (represented by Nick Kroll) is greedy and corrupt. Law enforcement (represented by Rob Huebel) is stupid and belligerent. The casino becomes not only a place of recreation but also the only place where civic interactions among the citizens seem possible. It also reveals the true face of a society divided into predators and prey, the house and the suckers.
The only way to protect yourself and the people you love is to pick the right side. That seems shockingly cynical, but there is something admirable in a movie that examines some of the worst aspects of modern American life with blunt, good-humored honesty. We’re not nice people. You can bet on that.
— — —