Anyone who thinks the house always wins hasn’t seen “The House.” Not that anyone who goes to see this movie, ostensibly a comedy but in reality a bizarre endurance test, wins either — Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler’s latest is a zero-sum game in which the odds are never in your favor.
After learning that the scholarship that was going to send their daughter to college no longer exists, the happily married couple played by Ferrell and Poehler do what any caring parents would do: start an illegal casino in their friend’s (Jason Mantzoukas) house. That most of the patrons they aim to get rich off of are their neighbors and friends never seems to be an issue, nor is it the source of either comedy or tension.
What follows plays as a feature-length version of deleted scenes from other, superior comedies whose makers knew better than to let such uninspired material past the cutting-room floor. It would almost be impressive how many funny people it took to make something so unfunny — the full ensemble includes Nick Kroll, Allison Tolman, Michaela Watkins and Rob Huebel — only it’s difficult to be impressed when you’re focused on how little you’re laughing.
One recurring gag involves Ferrell having a comically poor conception of basic math, though “comic” is used loosely here — like most everything else in “The House,” it elicits more eyerolls than laughter. Also: homages to “Casino” and “Terminator,” a surprising amount of blood and a Jeremy Renner cameo (those last two are related, natch).
The trio’s get-rich-quick scheme is an instant success, but for some unspoken reason, Ferrell and Poehler never cash out and take the money required to pay their daughter’s tuition. (That would be too simple, you see, and there’s somehow still an hour left in “The House.”) Instead they build up the casino more and more while trying to avoid the busybody city councilman (Kroll) who’s onto them, discovering in the process that they enjoy their new roles.
Ferrell accidentally develops an affinity for cutting off people’s fingers, earning the nickname The Butcher; Poehler favors a small blowtorch. Andrew Jay Cohen, the director/pit boss, is making his debut as a helmer but previously wrote “Neighbors” and its sequel as well as “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”; uneven though that resume may be, it’s certainly superior to his latest work.
Funny people sometimes make unfunny movies. Ferrell and Poehler would know: They’ve starred in the likes of “Elf” and “Mean Girls” but also “The Campaign” and “Blades of Glory.” Poehler especially, who has the same problem as Tina Fey — good TV shows, bad movies — channels her endearing energy as best she can, but is powerless against the odds.
You both feel bad for the actors and wonder how it is that they never banded together to mutiny on set and demand a better script — unless, like their characters, they simply laughed all the way to the bank.
“The House” is now playing nationwide.