When Scott and Kate Johansen's daughter gets into the college of her dreams it's cause for celebration. That is, until Scott and Kate (Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler) learn that the scholarship they were counting on didn't come through, and they're now on the hook for tuition they can't begin to afford.
"Once you go to the dark side it goes dark very quickly, trust me. I see fingers everywhere."
It's tough to see a great comedic cast come together under the guidance of a great comedic director and just not have things work out. Such is the case with The House starring Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, and Jason Mantzoukas under the direction of comedy writer Andrew Jay Cohen. A smart cast with talent to burn and a clever premise for an "in over their head comedy" unfortunately just doesn't come together. The cast looks like they're having a great time, but the flick has the feeling of a bunch of friends getting together on the weekend to make a movie together without really letting the audience in on the fun.
Scott (Will Ferrell) and Kate Johansen (Amy Poehler) are leading an average middle-class life. They've got average people problems - including their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) who is about to head off to an expensive college. While most would worry about financials, Alex has herself a full-ride scholarship. Problem solved…until the scholarship falls through (apparently they didn't apply for other scholarships, grants, or loans). Now the Johansens are strapped for time and cash. Fortunately, their pal Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) has an open house and a lot of free time after his wife left him. With an affinity for gambling, Scott, Kate, and Frank decide to open up a Vegas-style casino to get that extra cash to get Alex off to college. Things are going fine until a bunch of criminals get wind of the profitable action and decide they want their piece of the pie and the underground casino starts to get more action than it can handle.
On the surface, The House should be the makings of a solid dark comedy. An average middle America couple hits financial troubles and concocts a crazy scheme to raise cash that could only go wrong. An underground casino while perhaps not as subtle as say selling weed to college kids does work. It sets up the potential for vast profits quickly while also raising the stakes for a larger criminal element to impose their will on a group of people in way over their head. All of this is great plot setup for a comedy should have worked. Unfortunately "subtlety" and "restraint" are two words not found in this film's vocabulary.
The film's problems begin almost instantly during a tour of Alex's school of choice. Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler are genuinely funny people, but together they don't make convincing parents. This is especially compounded when they noticeably go off script and fall back on their respective improv shticks forcing whoever is in the scene with them to react on the fly to whatever oddball thing they're saying to drum up some laughs. The trouble is they frequently do this and it's painfully not funny.
After his successes on projects like Neighbors, Neighbors 2, and the somewhat decent Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Andrew Jay Cohen takes the leap from writer to director with The House. While this is an amiable effort, the plot scenario is clever, there's nothing new or exciting to separate this film from the numerous raunchy comedies of the past decade. The House is simply yet another suburban white people in over their heads movie. To be frank, that hand has played. Even the downright hilarious sequence of Will Ferrell accidentally cutting off the middle finger of a cheating gambler isn't enough to salvage this flick.
For me, comedy - even raunchy ones - are a balance of tact and taste against the grotesque and unexpected. It's a battle between highbrow and base that creates conflict the becomes hilarity. When a movie like The House starts low and just goes lower, there's not a lot of maneuverability. Even when you have a mobster played by Jeremy Renner to spice things up, there's only so much mileage you can get out of that before it too becomes stale. I'll say The House was certainly better than Neighbors 2, but that's not saying a whole lot. There are moments of genuine laughter - like the previously mentioned finger incident - but even those scant few moments can't make up for the entirety that this movie just wasn't that good. I like Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, I enjoy their supporting cast, but they can do better than this.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The House arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Brothers in a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD set. Pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc, the discs are housed in an eco-friendly Blu-ray case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads to trailers for other upcoming Warner Brothers releases before arriving at a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
The House makes its way to Blu-ray with a 2.40:1 1080p transfer that is about par for the course when it comes to digitally sourced films. It's nothing remarkable, but there's nothing serious to ding it about either. Outside of some occasional video noise and a little bit of banding here and there, this is a solid transfer. From the get-go, details are strong and robust allowing you to take in the lush greenery of the college campus and later soak in all of the glory (and horrors) of the underground casino. Colors are bright and bold with primaries finding a nice saturation level. Flesh tones are also on point with the cast looking healthy. Black levels are solid, there is a great sense of depth to the image. Some scenes could look a little flat, but those are few and far between. All around a good looking transfer for a comedy of this sort.
Like its visual counterpoint, The House arrives with a strong English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix. If I have anything negative to say, it's that there really isn't a whole lot of surround activity. Imaging is pretty restrained with only some slight background noise and atmospheric sounds working the channels. By and large, this is a left-center-right channel affair - which is all it really needs to be. Dialogue comes through clean and clear without issue. Sound effects and scoring are nicely layered to pump up the atmosphere and spatial senses. The mix comes alive during the casino scenes as there's a notable increase in activity. Levels are on point, once you have them where you like them you shouldn't need to adjust the volume any.
Considering the film's poor critical and box office reception, this is actually a halfway decent assortment of bonus features. They're not groundbreaking or anything, but again, like most releases these days, this is better than what most flicks get.
The House Playing with a Loaded Deck: (HD 12:47) Your average tried and true EPK bonus feature.
If You Build The House They Will Come: (HD 13:43) This is an interesting bit that takes a look at the intricate set design work that went into creating the casino set.
Deleted Scenes (HD 15:43) This is a collection of alternate opening scenes, a few deleted sequences, and other bits that were understandably cut for time and pace or simply because they didn't really go anywhere.
Extended/Alternate Scenes (HD 1:19:54) Considering the number of alternate scenes runs nearly as long as the actual movie more or less shows how much of this was left up to the cast to improv.
Gag Reel (HD 9:57) Your typical on camera gaffs and cutups.
Line-O-Ramas (HD 8:41) A quick collection of improved lines for various scenes.
It's pretty easy to peg that I wasn't a fan of The House. I went in not expecting much from it and didn't get much. It's the sort of rote comedy that has become all too common with great comedic talents like Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler trying to make the most of things. Even with a better-than-average plot setup, the film falls back on improv shtick to move the flick forward and it's just not funny. That said, Warner Brothers has delivered a solid Blu-ray release for this would-be comedy with a great A/V presentation and a rather impressive collection of bonus features. The House just didn't do it for me because so much of the comedic hijinks are so familiar they've become expected. If you have to see it, rent it first.