“The House,” a new comedy starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, has arrived in theaters without advance screenings for critics. I know better than to take it personally when this kind of thing happens, but I do often wonder why it does happen. Usually the studio (Warner Bros. in this case) thinks it has a turkey on its hands, but sometimes it doesn’t know quite what it has, and sneaks an interesting movie into theaters more or less by mistake. That seems to have been the case this time.
Based on trailers and the durable, slightly stale charm of its stars, “The House” might be mistaken for a genial, silly movie about nice people making questionable decisions. Instead, it is a dark, startlingly bloody journey into the bitter, empty, broken heart of the American middle class, a blend of farce and satire built on a foundation of social despair.
It all starts innocently enough. Scott and Kate Johansen (Mr. Ferrell and Ms. Poehler) are visiting Bucknell University with their daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins). Mom and Dad are lovey, clingy, goofy Gen-X parents, and their kid is a high-achieving, deadpan millennial. Some borderline-inappropriate jokes are cracked and you brace yourself for 90 more minutes of semi-awkward, underwritten, marshmallow-soft humor featuring people who have been funnier elsewhere.
But then Alex loses her scholarship and her parents face a not-all-that-exaggerated version of the struggle that confronts so many families. “It’s $50 million!” Scott exclaims when he sees the tuition bill. The poor math skills that seemed at first like an arbitrary character trait were more likely invented to enable that very joke. It might as well be $50 million. Suddenly this couple, with a big house in a pleasant, generic suburban town, find themselves in a state of abject desperation.
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