Depressing, mean-spirited jokes in ‘The House’ never pay off

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Desperate for cash to fund their daughter’s college education, the Johansens (Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler) open a casino in their home in “The House.” | Warner Bros.


If your first roll of the dice comes up a two, a three or a 12, that’s craps, and there goes your money — and then you’re given the choice to roll the dice again or pass them to the next shooter.

“The House” is the comedy equivalent of a craps shooter who rolls a two, and then a three, and then a 12, and then a two again, and then ANOTHER two — but instead of quitting while he’s behind, he just keeps on rolling the dice until there’s nothing left.

Despite the pairing of the eminently likable and talented Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as the leads, and about a dozen recognizable (and usually funny) supporting players, “The House” is a fetid, cheap-looking, depressing and occasionally even mean-spirited disaster.

I wouldn’t be surprised if an expert in Morse code discovers Ferrell and Poehler were blinking “SAVE US!” at some point during filming.

This is a broad farce in which virtually every single grown adult is an idiot. If all the 40ish characters in this movie were actually 12-year-olds in a bad body-switching movie, they STILL wouldn’t behave in such juvenile, self-centered, utterly ridiculous fashion.

Poehler is Kate Johansen and Ferrell is her husband Scott. They live with their teenage daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) in a lovely home in the comfortable, sleepy town of Fox Meadow, where everybody seems to know everyone else, and there appears to be exactly one police officer in town: the friendly but bumbling Officer Chandler (Rob Huebel).

Each year the town of Fox Meadow awards a full college scholarship to a deserving resident, and this year Alex is the winner — but a sneaky and corrupt councilman named Bob (Nick Kroll) says the town would be better served by spending the funds on an elaborate swimming pool, leaving nothing in the till for Alex.

This throws Kate and Scott for a loop. Apparently it never occurred to them to put away a dime for their daughter’s education. They meet with their financial advisor, go over the paperwork and Scott triumphantly says, “We have $401,000!”

No, says the advisor. You have a 401(k).

OK, so they DO have some money — but no, the movie tells us they’re broke and they have no way of paying for Alex’s college education.

Ah, but as luck would have it, their dear friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), who was recently dumped by his wife because of his gambling addiction, has a plan, and please don’t ask me how he arrives at this plan: The three of them will open an illegal, secret casino in Frank’s house, and over the course of the summer they’ll make enough money for the Johansens to fund Alex’s education and Frank to win back his wife.

A half-million ought to do it! Now all they have to do is invite their friends and neighbors, who dutifully show up night after night and risk hundreds and even thousands of dollars at blackjack, poker, craps, roulette, you name it.

(Even though we’re told Frank and Kate and Scott are broke, they somehow come up with the funds to build a full working casino in Frank’s house; hire dealers and bartenders and spa workers, and stock cash reserves to pay out the winners. And nobody in Fox Meadows sees anything, hears anything or says anything about it.)

Believe it or not, circumstances grow ever more implausible and cartoonish from that point forward. There’s more character development (and more believable plot turns) in a typical “Saturday Night Live” sketch.

Director and co-writer Andrew Jay Cohen indulges in some nasty pieces of physical “comedy,” including but not limited to:

• Two instances in which Ferrell’s Scott shoves a friend of his daughter’s and sends her flying.

• Scott and Kate turning into mobster-wannabes inspired by Scorsese’s “Casino.”

• A severed finger.

• A severed hand.

• Two trash-talking female neighbors squaring off in a “Fight Club” type encounter, exchanging vicious and bloody blows while their friends (who have bet on the fight) egg them on. The fight ends when they knock each other unconscious — utterly oblivious to their surroundings.

I envied both of them.

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Andrew Jay Cohen and written by Cohen and Brendan O’Brien and Cohen. Rated R (for language throughout, sexual references, drug use, some violence and brief nudity). Running time: 88 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.

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