The House is a solid, if unremarkable, big studio comedy with fleeting moments of humor peppered throughout its runtime.
Scott (Will Ferrell) and Kate Johansen (Amy Poehler) are two loving parents who would do anything for their daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins). The family is thrilled when Alex gets into her college of choice, Bucknell University, and a celebration ensues. Scott and Kate are under the assumption that Alex is set to receive a scholarship that the small town of Fox Meadow awards each year, but things do not go as planned. At a meeting, city councilman Bob Schaefer (Nick Kroll) announces there is no money in the budget to pay for Alex's education, due to a new community pool project that requires a substantial amount of funds.
Stuck in a position where they have to handle Alex's expensive tuition themselves (with little resources of their own) and afraid to tell their daughter she can't go to her dream school, Scott and Kate resort to a wild idea. Teaming up with Scott's gambling-addicted friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), the three transform Frank's house into an illegal underground casino that becomes a popular hangout amongst the town's residents. As the casino continues to grow in prominence, Scott and Kate must make enough to pay for Alex's college before authorities like Bob and Officer Chandler (Rob Huebel) discover what's going on.
Marking the feature film directorial debut of Andrew Jay Cohen (writer of Neighbors and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates), The House is designed to be an entertaining vehicle for its stars, while offering an outrageous "what if?" premise to provide audiences with some laughs as we enter the mid-point of the summer movie season. On that front, the movie is mostly successful, though it never reaches real greatness. The House is a solid, if unremarkable, big studio comedy with fleeting moments of humor peppered throughout its runtime.
The greatest strength of the film is the relationship depicted between Alex and her parents. Many of the early scenes show a close familial bond and allows viewers to buy into Scott and Kate being caring, well-meaning parents. In these portions, Ferrell and Poehler come across as sweet and sincere, avoiding falling into the trap of becoming overbearing or clingy. Admittedly, Cohen isn't breaking any new ground with this dynamic, but it's nice that he put the effort into making his protagonists likable and relatable in the beginning. Though The House never fully runs with the social satire angles it flirts with, there is some commentary on the perils of paying for a child's tuition - which will surely hit home for any parent in the audiences. It's easy to root for Scott and Kate since they're doing this for a noble cause.
Unfortunately, the rest of the story that surrounds the dynamic with Scott, Kate, and Alex is a little underwhelming. The House comes across as pretty standard fare for this genre, and at times meanders along as it follows its predictable trajectory. That's not to say there aren't laughs to be had; certain lines and sequences are definitely amusing, but nothing truly sticks with the audience. Cohen can't resist the temptation to reference some classic Martin Scorsese films (including, unsurprisingly, Casino), but these bits of parody can be a little too on-the-nose to land with the desired impact. It's undeniably fun to see Ferrell channel his inner-Robert De Niro and put on a faux tough guy persona, there just isn't much to the narrative at hand. The premise itself is a bit thin, which is evident by a second act that drags in places and plays as episodic. Some of the sequences would make for hilarious clips on their own, but don't help the plot flow naturally.
In terms of the performances, Ferrell and Poehler make for a nice pair of leads that carry the film across the finish line on their shoulders. There isn't a whole lot to their characters and neither is breaking any molds here, but they're still good fits for their roles thanks to their natural comedic talents. Whether it's a quieter moment where they're talking about Alex's future or a zany, over-the-top beat to illustrate how deep they've fallen into the casino life, Ferrell and Poehler are game for anything and do good work. Sadly, the third member of the Johansen trio, Alex, is an afterthought for long stretches of the script and is afforded minimal characterization. She's more of a plot device that exists to drive the story than a well-defined individual. This is Ferrell and Poehler's show, but if would have been nice if their daughter wasn't a MacGuffin.
The supporting cast is likewise decent, but largely unmemorable. Many of Scott and Kate's neighbors and fellow citizens are one-note and leave no real impression, serving only to flesh out the casino with "high-rollers" that can't get enough of all the activities. Mantzoukas is arguably the standout as Frank, though that's largely because of his amount of screen time and not necessarily his character. He makes for a funny presence at times, though a subplot involving his own personal reasons for making his home a gambling establishment is superfluous at times and doesn't add much to the story. Huebel has one of the better turns in the movie, as his Officer Chandler is hopelessly trying to get everyone to follow the laws to maintain order. He has a sizable role to play in the story, and there's a nice payoff towards the end.
Ultimately, The House makes for a decent comedy fueled mainly by workman-like direction from Cohen and commitment from stars Ferrell and Poehler. Some of the humor can be sophomoric for stretches and the story itself requires a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief in order to go along for the ride, but the film is harmless fun and is worth a watch for fans of the actors involved or moviegoers looking for an R-rated comedy this time of year. At the same time, those who were on the fence based on marketing don't need to rush out to theaters to see it. The House is middle-of-the-road all the way through.