' ' Cinema Romantico: The House

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The House

“The House”, not so much a movie as a comedy sketch that ran aground and still managed to ooze remnants of its un-funny onto whatever movie screens would have it, takes its name from the illegal casino opened by Scott (Will Ferrell) and Kate (Amy Poehler) Johansen, along with their friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), feeling blue because of his divorce from Raina (Michaela Watkins, as extraordinary a comedienne as you will find who is blasphemously given nothing funny to do). Scott and Kate hope this gambling den will allow them to afford college for their daughter, whose scholarship has just been lost, an equally absurd and tantalizing premise that never comically follows up on its inherent of-the-moment desperation, becoming something like an R-rated “Mafia!” as staged by The Groundlings on an off night, trying to imagine “Casino” re-set on South Padre Island.

That “The House” fails so miserably is because director Andrew Jay Cohen, and his co-writer Brendan O’Brien, exhibit minimal thought, less committed to character, never mind structure or actual though-through comic setpieces, than simply throwing their actors on screen, giving them a couple instructions and letting them riff in the hopes that they somehow stumble their way into a scene’s conclusion. This makes for a movie that does not so much move along as bumble around, crumbling to the dust in the end, emblemized by a startlingly confused Jeremy Renner cameo where he shows up to play would-be comic moments distressingly straight, like he was told this was a different movie, maybe because its makers didn’t know what movie they were making.

Ferrell, meanwhile, is just re-purposing his part from “Kicking and Screaming” (2005) in which his mild-mannered suburban dad became nothing short of an unhinged autocrat overseeing a youth soccer team, as his mild-mannered suburban Scott becomes nothing short of a mafia enforcer wielding an axe. Amy Poehler, talented comic actress, doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do, underscored by one frame, appearing during a variation of “Fight Club”, where she is just stuck on the right hand side of the frame, drink in hand, awkwardly frozen, like she doesn’t really know what she is supposed to be doing. Because she doesn’t, she mostly just follows Ferrell’s lead and drops f-bombs. That’s the movie’s fallback mode – gratuitous vulgarity, best glimpsed when Scott, Kate and Frank, forced to confront a card-counter, bounce around like boxers before the big fight, egging one another on to bigger, bawdier words, a scene that feels as if it had no idea where it was going when the cameras began rolling.

A.O. Scott took some guff for penning a New York Times review that dared suggest “The House” was 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.” I think that’s what Scott wanted to see, and maybe convinced himself he was seeing, because the tools are there for a farcical satire, like a modern spin on “Lost in America.” Indeed, if the baby boomers of Albert Brooks lost their “nest egg” and were forced to struggle, they still had a nest egg to begin with, a luxury post-2008 eluding the Johansens. It’s scholarship or bust, and when that falls away, they have nothing to fall back on except transforming into desperate outlaws. But Brooks gave real thought to his children of baby boomers attempting to demonstrate passé 60s values in the go-go 80s, where they sought to dispel themselves of their creature comforts only to realize how much they needed them. That, alas, is a level of irony beyond “The House”, which is so pathetically innoxious in its rendering of economic desperation that the movie itself, more than any of the sad attempts at suburban bacchanal, is sinful.

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