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Non-Review Review: The House

The House comes from the writing duo Brendan O’Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen, representing Cohen’s directorial debut.

O’Brien and Cohen are perhaps best known for their work on Neighbours and Neighbours II: Sorority Rising, two of the more successful “overgrown manchildren” movies of the past few years. (They also worked on the somewhat underrated Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.) While these sorts of movies about grown-ups behaving badly are a dime-a-dozen in the modern comedy landscape, Neighbours and Neighbours II were elevated by a number of factors: attention to their female leads, very canny casting, clever shifts in the film’s moral weight at key moments.

They are so money.

The House is perhaps a more modest proposal than Neighbours and Neighbours II. It is certainly a lot more straightforward in its plotting and character arcs, a simplicity reflected in the relatively abridged run-time of eighty-eight minutes. (To be fair, both Neighbours and Neighbours II kept their runtime just over the hour-and-a-half mark, which seems about right for a broad comedy.) However, it shares one key strength. It is a movie that very skilfully captures the feeling of a mid-life crisis, and the yearn to return to into a belated adolescence.

The House is a little uneven in places, prone to the structural problems that haunt a lot of contemporary blockbuster comedy from the jokey asides that jar with the narrative to the oh-so-tidy resolution, but it has a solid core. It is a movie that understands the middle-class middle-aged urge to break bad in the most banal of fashions, just a hint of sadness lurking beneath its more absurd twists. The House doesn’t always win, and maybe it hedges just a little too much, but it knows the game that it is playing.

A dicey proposition.

Very much in keeping with the Saturday Night Live honed talents of Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, The House is prone to wander off on tangents. There is a constant sense that the production team have left the camera running at certain points, to try and capture some improvisational gold dust. It is an approach that feels very common in modern comedy, to the point that studios and directors have generated enough material that they can now put out trailers with alternate takes so as to preserve the better gags for the cinema audience.

These tangents work well enough, often quite funny on their own terms. The House repeatedly indulges its sense of the absurd, particularly working from the premise of two middle-aged parents who are convinced by their best friend to open an illegal casino to pay for their daughter’s college tuition. At one point in the middle of the film, The House transforms from a slapstick “fish out of water” comedy into a very pointed spoof of Casino, right down to framing and costuming.

Why, yes. I do think Casino is an underrated Scorsese film.

The jokes work to varying degrees. One of the movie’s more hilarious scenes involves a riff on one of the most iconic sequences in Casino as the gang try to figure out what to do with a cheat. At another point, the team try to get the owner of the local frozen yogurt parlour to pay up by effectively ice-cream-boarding him, a neat visual gag. The film takes a two-minute detour into the delightful excesses of cocaine consumption.

At other points, the jokes often feel like ad-libbed sequences that run on just a little bit too long. There is a weird detour in the middle of the movie when mild-mannered Scott Johansen reinvents himself as an axe-weilding heavy calling himself “the Butcher.” At another point, characters enjoy an extended riff on Scott’s choice of “Italian” accessories. These are moments that feel lifted from a much broader movie in the parody style of the Zucker Brothers, losing a sense of these characters in the midst of these (occasionally endearing) send-ups.

Only two things are certain in life: death and axes.

The House works best when it keeps things at least a little bit grounded. Although the plot of The House is driven by Scott and Kate’s attempts to get their daughter to college, the real heart of the movie lies in the question of how Scott and Kate will cope without their daughter to anchor them. In some ways, this is similar to the effective set-up of Neighbours and Neighbours II. Although the action was driven by the rowdy frat house, the real challenge at the heart of the film was how its three central characters approached the idea of becoming an adult.

The House belongs to a modern comedy subgenre that has slowly turned its attention towards middle age as the comedy stars from the turn of the millennium grow older. Films as diverse as The Internship, Office Christmas Party, Horrible Bosses and Unfinished Business tap into this anxiety, this idea of watching forty-odd-year-old men behave like twenty-somethings. (In many respects, Old School feels like a strange prefiguring, a comedy touching on these themes starring some of these familiar actors over a decade before the current explosion.)

Nobody is pointing fingers.

However, there is a strange purity and sincerity to The House. Part of this is down to the decision to ground a lot of the basic character motivations in very understandable middle-age anxieties. Scott and Kate are trapped between a desire to send their daughter to the best college, and worry about what will happen when they are gone. Frank is worried about the loss of his home, both metaphorically through his divorce and literally through foreclosure. Even the film’s antagonist, Bob, is a pencil-pusher caught in an illicit affair and unsure what to do about it.

The House occasionally feels like a broad satire of middle-aged ennui, of the sense of disconnect and disillusionment that comes with growing old. The House feels like an extended riff on the absurd fantasia of Breaking Bad, of the unspoken desires that bubble beneath the surface of middle-class lives, gently mocking the relatively pathetic (and often very small-scale) in which people might want to “break bad.”

“I don’t think our insurance covers this.”

The strongest gag in The House is how small-scale a lot of this feels, how low the stakes are for many of the players involved for the energy invested and the pleasure derived. Once the trio commit to the idea of running an underground casino, Frank repeatedly and consistently reinvests money in this fantasy to make the casino more elaborate and professional. However, no matter how much he spends, it always feels like an approximation of danger and risk, a venture that is effectively the home entertainment version of gambling and organised crime.

It is too much to suggest that The House truly invests in its character dynamics, but O’Brien and Cohen are clever enough to keep these threads running through the film. Even as the movie branches off on tangents, the script makes a point to return to the relationship between the Johansen family or to Frank’s misguided efforts to reconnect with his ex-wife Raina, or even to the weird dynamic between Bob and Dawn. As a result, The House always returns to its emotional core.

“When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

The cast helps a great deal. Ferrell is reliable, and Poehler is charming. Both improvise well enough that the movie’s many joke-led narrative cul-de-sacs never feel too exhausting or infuriating. Nick Kroll is a suitably slimy antagonist, as we was in Sausage Fest. However, the breakout performer is Jason Mantzoukas as Frank. Frank is very clearly written as the goofy supporting character, in the style of Alan from The Hangover or Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. However, Mantzoukas provides Frank with a strange and endearing pathos.

These elements sustain the movie through some of its more frustrating moments, particularly the obligatory “pseudo-action climax” that comes a little out of left-field in terms of genre shifts. What had been a broad casino movie transforms into a very abrupt heist movie, one that feels like a very sudden change of direction. (Notably, one of the primary characters completely disappears from the film’s action movie ending, adding to the sense of disconnect.) The movie offers a very tidy and conventional conclusion, one that feels like it came packaged in a box.

Flame on.

Still, these problems aside, The House is relatively solid. While it has an impressive foundation, the structure is uneven. It lacks the focus and purpose that made Neighbours and Neighbours II so effective, even it taps into the same core themes and ideas.


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