I feel a bit bad for Will Ferrell. In a week or so, the comedy legend will turn 50. He made Old School in 2003 and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy the following year. He started his seven-year "Saturday Night Live" tenure in 1995. Over nearly a quarter century, Ferrell has done about everything an exceptionally gifted comic actor and writer conceivably can do. Some of those things several times. I mean no disrespect when reporting that he does nothing in The House we haven't seen him do before — in far better films. He's about to celebrate his birthday with the biggest flop of his career.
Ferrell and Amy Poehler costar as Scott and Kate Johansen, cartoon suburbanites whose daughter has just gotten into a pricey college. A scholarship on which they'd counted falls through, and, though they live in a sprawling McMansion, the couple has evidently never heard of financial aid or a savings account. They're preposterously clueless when it comes to numbers — a running joke.
Scott, for example, opens a tuition bill for $50,000. "Fifty million what?" he squeals. So, when the Johansens' gambling-addict neighbor (Jason Mantzoukas) proposes solving their money problems by opening an illegal casino in his recently foreclosed-on home, they're all in. Zany antics ensue.
The directorial debut of Andrew Jay Cohen, the movie was cowritten with Brendan O'Brien. It won't come as a shock that the team previously penned Neighbors and its sequel. The concept of a casino popping up in a neighborhood of squares is only the most minor variation on the concept of a frat house popping up in a neighborhood of squares. In both cases, what laughs there are arise from the juxtaposition of suburban ho-hum-ness with the high jinks in the house.
And there are laughs. Just not very many. Especially given the number of unusually funny people in the cast. As opposed to, say, a jackpot, this is the movie comedy equivalent of a slot machine trickling the occasional quarter. Cohen's approach is strictly hurl-everything-at-the-screen-and-hope-something-sticks.
You could sort of see this disaster coming. Ferrell was uncharacteristically absent from the chat-fest circuit in the run-up to the film's release. Until a day or so before it hit theaters, the picture didn't have a rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a sure sign reviewers were being kept at bay. When the numbers started coming in, they were anything but Anchorman or Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby numbers — initially, an 18 percent "fresh" rating. As more critics weighed in, that score nose-dived. The House is currently crapped out at 16 percent.
I've got a radical proposal: transparency. By all accounts, Cohen is a hardworking, likable young fellow. When he approached Ferrell with the idea for a comedy in which a dorky dad morphs into the mobster Robert De Niro played in Casino — complete with oversize shades — the star was good-hearted enough to do the up-and-comer a solid. Nothing wrong with that. I just think the public deserves to know in advance that Ferrell didn't sign on because he'd read a brilliant script.
Maybe we need a tweak to the movie-ratings system, a heads-up on the same principle as those "student driver" signs. You know, something like "student director." Certainly it was swell of Ferrell to give Cohen the opportunity to earn while he learned. But audiences deserve the same degree of courtesy. Do yourself a favor and wait for this one to make it to cable. That, as they might say in The House, would be the smart bet.