Friday, June 30, 2017

Bet Your Life: THE HOUSE

We are at what one can only hope is the straggling tail end of the R-rated bad behavior comedy. The subgenre with such depressingly monotonous recent entries as Office Christmas Party, Fist Fight, and Snatched has become so predictable – shaggy improv roundabouts punctuated by truly nasty sight gags and corrosive worldviews wedded to extremely cynical sentimental self-actualization character arcs – that each new entry makes the days of Superbad or even Sisters seem so very far away. How often must we sit through the montages of consequence-free partying and destruction? This context might lead many to see what screenwriter Andrew Jay Cohen (of the more palatable Neighbors and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates) is up to with The House, his directorial debut, as just another version of the same. But this brisk comedy about an in-over-their-heads middle-aged middle-class couple running an illegal small-town underground casino is doing something different, giving its raunchy ridiculousness a chance to escalate in concert with performers interested in doing more than cranking it up to eleven at the first chance. Sure, the movie has four-letter words, scenes of crowds drinking and fighting, and the requisite gross-out gags, but there’s a desperation to the characters’ energy, and a sharp societal commentary running through it. 

The trouble starts when a sweet married couple (Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler) faces down their impending empty nest with creeping terror. They don’t have enough money. Their daughter (Ryan Simpkins) is off to college, but, unknown to her, the scholarship they were counting on has fallen through. The folks vow to send her off right, and not break the bank on their shaky mortgage, despite weak-kneed moments. We’ve done everything right, Ferrell wails, confronted with his retirement account nonetheless turning up lighter than he’d thought (his 401k, for example, is several hundred thousand less than his assumption that it was an account with $401k in it) and the first bills for tuition rolling in. Enter their lovably sleazy friend (Jason Mantzoukas, stepping up to co-lead status after years of choice bit parts), a desperate divorced mope in need of financial pick-me-up himself, who proposes the off-the-books, under-the-table casino concept. Make four years of tuition in just a month off the backs of their craven neighbors’ gambling urges! It seems so simple at the start, but the movie smartly allows it to spiral out of control in logically wild ways, tying its economic anxiety and middle-class collapse to their tunnel-vision greed. Its thesis very well might be “capitalism: the cause of and solution to your problems.” By the time the couple have become kingpins of the backyard bacchanalia, equal parts pleasure and guilt, it’s clear that money may be a necessary evil. They lose track of their original goal as they plunge deeper into selfishness (a trait mirrored by the town’s equally crooked council members). 

I’m afraid that might make the movie sound like a screed, or a grating political commentary. No, what’s some sort of genius is the way this all follows from a blast of a comedy, springing up naturally from heightened absurdity rooted in character and situation. It’s hilarious moment to moment, its underlying thematic preoccupations carried off with the lightest of touches because it’s too busy with bouncy quips, brisk sight gags, unexpected line-readings, and a convincingly centered escalation. Ferrell and Poehler play the rare comedy married couple who are given equal billing and equal footing in the shenanigans. Driven by the desire to do right by their daughter and continue the illusion of financial security for their family, they are in complete lockstep, a perfect team. No time for phony divisions or false relationship crises. They’re too busy slowly but surely turning into slick suburban mobsters, self-styled untouchable underground small business owners. All the while they remain adorably committed to each other and to their plan, building each other up and egging each other on. Ferrell and Poehler have the relaxed manic energy of an old relationship enlivened by an exciting new project, a chemistry that feels real and true and sells the insanity to come.

What starts as neighbors around a poker table balloons into fight night, bars, DJs, pool service and more as an honest-to-goodness casino-in-miniature opens up like a dazzling Hellmouth under their cul-de-sac. Surrounded by a stellar supporting cast (a veritable who’s-who of comic character actors, including Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, Lennon Parham, Cedric Yarbrough, Michaela Watkins, and more) who sell the good-natured raunch and escalating panic-inducing comic gross-outs. By the time sweet Ferrell has accidentally axed a low-level mobster’s finger off (and used a Croc in a flailing, futile attempt to stop the bleeding) and Poehler has fashioned a makeshift flamethrower to protect their investment, they’re not simply uproariously wild R-rated shocks, but a totally logical extension of the story’s good-natured cynicism. The lead characters are so sweet and loveable it’s worth a wild and wacky dive into the dark side to see them come face to face with their own greedy failings and rediscover what truly matters. 

It could have simply been pat family-first moralizing dressed up in goofy Breaking Bad-as-a-sitcom clothes, but the total commitment of its makers and leads elevate this into something special. The movie’s finale brings the strands together – family values colliding with small-town corruption in a mad-dash scramble to set things right. But it’s clear that just because this loveable family might be able to save themselves in the end, there remains something tenuous about the whole financial underpinnings of their world. It’s funny watching them flail – it’s the sort of comedy where it’s funny both cumulatively as obstacles pile up, and on a scene-by-scene basis as every glance, aside, and posture contributes to the pleasure – but there’s also a nervous laugh about how deeply messed up our culture’s financial priorities are. Turns out a casino economy is enough to drive a person crazy. The movie is an appealingly outlandish nervous tap-dance over the yawning chasm of distress that is modern America, an escalating desperation in the face of financial despair.

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