This past week’s best misdirection play wasn’t a tweet from a doomed, bratty not-really-a-billionaire in the White House. It was from the cast and director of a comedy, dishing on how they’d cut Mariah Carey out of their movie for “diva” behavior.
The joke’s on them, or us. Because Carey is the lucky one. It’s those trapped with “The House” on their credits who crapped out, and those trapped watching it.
Pairing up one-time SNL castmates Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler should have been the safest of safe bets. “Buddy picture” veterans who have made even Mark Wahlberg and Tina Fey funny, just put them in a situation and let’em riff, and you’ve got comic gold on your hands.
That’s pretty much what shows up on screen, two pushing 50 sketch comics straining, stretching, swearing and mugging, trying to find the funny in a comedy about earnest, over-extended, clingy and doting parents who set up an underground casino so that their Taylor Swift wanna-look-like daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins) can go to Bucknell.
No, it’s not just a basketball team with a college attached. It’s an expensive university in an era where college costs are spiraling ever upward.
Scott (Ferrell) has a phobia about numbers, and hasn’t paid close enough attention to their finances. And Kate (Poehler) is even less responsible in that regard. A college visit just reminds them that her nickname was “Smoke a lot of pot and pee outside Kate,” back in the day.
They let a dumped, broke and down-on-his-luck pal, Frank (Jason Mantzoukas of “The Dictator”) beg them into joining him for a trip to Vegas. That’s where Frank’s gambling problem is introduced and Kate and Scott almost strike it rich, almost solve their little insolvency.
And even though they live in a square, uptight and financially mismanaged planned community run by a martinet village councilman (Nick Kroll), they let Frank talk them into the one sure thing in a gambler’s life. “The House” always wins. Let’s set up a secret, off-the-books casino in Frank’s empty, foreclosed-upon house, make our college money, and get out.
What I hesitate to call a “script” briskly gets across the DIY nature of the casino — Walmart tinsel and strip light decor, plywood roulette tables and a tiny den converted into a stand-up comedy club. Potential laughs are, as they say in the poker rooms, “left on the table” there.
But the germ of a good idea peeks through, as gambling is presented in classic gateway vice fashion. Flawed “perfect” people in the planned community are exposed as hotheads with impulse control issues. Gambling leads to infidelity leads to drugs leads to violent crime.
And our casino proprietors have only memories of DeNiro/Pesci/Sharon Stone and Scorsese’s “Casino” as their guide in how to act tough and not get rolled by the unsavory characters such operations attract.
Mantzoukas adds nothing funny to the proceedings, so Ferrell and Poehler try to wrangle laughs out of parents dropping the F-bomb in front of their not-so-innocent kid, an only child who adores them and suffers their “Alex sandwich” hugs.
Most of of the scant laughs here pop up on the periphery, neighbor ladies (Lennon Parham, Andrea Savage) airing their feud at town council meeting.
“You know what LAURA brings to a potluck? Her nasty mouth…and NOTHING else!”
That blows up into an actual brawl, which the casino trio improvise into a refereed match, with wagering and DIY duct-tape gloves in a crime-scene tape boxing ring.
It all feels random and slapped together, with seriously under-developed heroes, villains, over-the-top geyser-of-blood violence played for laughs (That works) and the spectacle of Poehler’s Kate living down to that college nickname (public urination) or of Ferrell and Poehler improvising slapstick in a container store.
All of which remind us that the winner, the one person to beat “The House” — is Mariah Carey.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, sexual references, drug use, some violence and brief nudity.
Cast: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Nick Kroll, Jason Mantzoukas
Running time: 1:28