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‘The House’ worth a gamble

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Comedy rolls the dice in unexpected ways

It’s pretty easy to form an opinion of a movie before you see it. Trailers will often give you a sense of how you’re likely to feel about a film. You can watch interviews with press-junketing cast members and read reviews and other takes in print or online … or maybe you see that there were no advance screenings for critics at all. All of these things can serve as indicators of whether or not an offering is for you.

“The House” seemed like an easy read. The trailers might have elicited a chuckle or two, but felt generally generic and inane. The cast was solid, but the concept was thin. No advance screenings. Low scores on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. All signs pointed to a bad movie.

But this is one of those rare occasions when the signs were wrong. “The House” is a strange and surprisingly dark film, a funny movie whose humor comes from unexpected places. There’s a gleeful subversion at work that takes what could have been a forgettable vanilla comedy and twists it into something far more interesting.

Scott (Will Ferrell, “Zoolander 2”) and Kate (Amy Poehler, “Sisters”) Johanson are run-of-the-mill suburbanites. Their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins, “Anguish”) – the apple of their eye – is on the verge of heading off to college. She is accepted at Bucknell and her parents couldn’t be prouder.

However, when the town scholarship Alex won is discontinued by city councilman chair Bob (Nick Kroll, “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie”) in favor of the town’s new pool, Scott and Kate are left with the unenviable task of telling their beloved daughter that they can no longer afford to send her to the school she wants to attend.

As they try to decide what to do, their good friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas, “Dirty Grandpa”) – whose marriage to Raina (Michaela Watkins, “How to Be a Latin Lover”) is falling apart thanks to his gambling addiction – insists that they follow through on a planned trip to Las Vegas. Some bad luck at the tables leads to a plan; Scott, Kate and Frank are going to start an underground casino in their town to make enough money to pay Alex’s tuition.

The trio builds their casino into one of the most popular spots in town, but things spiral out of control quickly. As the enterprise expands, all three find themselves getting swept up into a maelstrom fueled by the desperate ennui of their neighbors. And despite their best efforts, they can’t help but attract unwanted attention; Bob has suspicions (and questionable motivations) that lead him to enlist the help of the dopey and unstable Officer Chandler (Rob Huebel, “Baywatch”), while the operation’s success piques the curiosity of some rather unsavory types from the other side of the law.

Scott and Kate are adrift in this new world, drawn to the rush that they get from being these new versions of themselves. But it soon becomes clear that for them to avoid losing everything, they’re going to have to bet it all – and in this scenario, the house doesn’t always win.

“The House” has plenty of familiar comedic trappings; on first glance, it comes off as something you’ve seen a million times before. But as the film progresses, the darkness bubbles up to the surface. This is a film that mines the bored sameness of middle-class life – and the fears that come with that life – for laughs that ever-so-slightly twist the knife. There’s a real harshness to many of the jokes, while the slapstick violence is surprisingly graphic. Director Andrew Jay Cohen - who also co-wrote the script – is a first-time feature director; his previous work (particularly “Neighbors”) has shown flashes of a similar vibe, but only flashes.

There’s no question that the subversive spirit on display here springs largely from the cast. Ferrell and Poehler are no strangers to the utter, sincere commitment required to make these characters work on the broad spectrum required of them by the story. They dig in and push hard; their dynamic weirdness powers the film. Mantzoukas operates on a much more overt level than Ferrell and Poehler, yet also manages to find nuance in his extremity. The supporting cast overflows with gifted comedians – Kroll, Huebel and Watkins are joined by folks Allison Tolman, Kyle Kinane, Lennon Parham, Cedric Yarbrough, Rory Scovel … the list goes on and on.

(Not to mention a delightful and unexpected cameo that I won’t spoil here even though I think the internet may have already done so.)

“The House” has plenty of flaws. It suffers a bit from the improvisational approach that was clearly used for some of its scenes; it’s definitely muddy around the edges. There’s a whole subplot revolving around the daughter that just goes nowhere, serving as little more than unnecessary padding. And there is some tonal inconsistency that occasionally takes the air out of the proceedings.

But it’s undeniably surprising. A lot of people will undoubtedly dislike this movie – the critics certainly did – but if you wind up liking it, it almost certainly won’t be for the reasons you thought you would. Place a bet on “The House” – the odds might be long, but if you hit, the payoff will be considerable.

[4 out of 5]

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