Both a critical and commercial dud, his pairing with Amy Poehler didn’t work at all. But this comedy’s portrait of middle-aged mediocrity and economic anxiety is so intriguing that you can see the terrific satire it could have been
Sometimes, a disappointing movie can be more interesting than a good movie. With a good movie, you laugh or cry for a couple hours, and then you forget all about it — but with a disappointing movie, there can be enough in there that could have worked that you find yourself thinking about it months later, sifting through the debris, wondering what could have been. The film’s still eating at you, not letting you go.
Will Ferrell has made so many better films than The House but, weirdly, it’s one that pops into my head with alarming frequency. What was that movie? How did it go so wrong? And, also, why do I feel like it was so close to actually being a really smart, sharp satire? It’s now been exactly five years since that critical and commercial disaster was released, not screened in advance for critics because the folks at Warner Bros. knew they had a dud. Indeed, The House was a massive disappointment, but it’s clear what Ferrell and company were aiming for. If you squint just right, maybe you can convince yourself it’s actually somewhere in that mess of a movie.
The film marked a period of transition in Ferrell’s career, although that wasn’t clear at the time. His longtime writing partner Adam McKay, who directed hits like Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, had decided to shift course, focusing on more politically-minded satires. (A year before The House came out, McKay won a screenplay Oscar for his financial-crisis satire The Big Short.) Meanwhile, Ferrell was working with other filmmakers, including Etan Cohen for Get Hard and Sean Anders for Daddy’s Home.
Both of those 2015 movies were financially successful, even if they didn’t quite have the bite of the old Ferrell/McKay collaborations, although McKay was a producer on each of them. (That year, Ferrell also did the truly daffy A Deadly Adoption, his deadpan parody of a cheesy Lifetime thriller… that actually aired on Lifetime.) If McKay was now after more high-minded creative expression, his former collaborator was still very committed to extreme silliness, which isn’t to say that Ferrell didn’t think deeply about the buffoons he portrayed. From his George W. Bush impression to Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby, he understood something essential about a certain kind of arrogant, unremarkable post-9/11 white male, who was reacting to a changing world with undeserved confidence and blissful stupidity. Ferrell didn’t care how weird an idea was — like, for instance, his super-niche-y 2012 spoof of telenovelas, Casa de mi padre — because, if he thought it was funny, he’d do it. “I’ve always loved making other people laugh, but I’ve never needed it,” Ferrell said last year. “I’ve never had the need to have to make you like me.”
The House was the directorial debut of Andrew Jay Cohen, who co-wrote the very funny Neighbors with Brendan O’Brien. The writing partners had come up with another script, all about a comfortably middle-class married couple who discover that their daughter’s college scholarship has been rescinded, forcing them to take desperate measures to pay for her schooling.
“College is super-expensive and you can’t make ends meet sometimes. That makes you feel like not a man or not a woman, or not a dad and not a mom,” Cohen said later about what had inspired The House. “I think it’s that darkness of ‘Am I good enough? Am I doing enough? What if I’m bad at this and I screw it up?’ That would suck. The fear and anxiety of that is real. I feel like I want to make comedies about different things that are on the tips of people’s tongues. Or are right in front of them that they aren’t articulating yet.”
Male insecurity was something Ferrell has explored a lot in his comedy — especially in Get Hard and Daddy’s Home, two movies in which he played ineffectual middle-aged men whose confidence was low — so it made sense that he’d sign up for The House, paired with Amy Poehler, who’d been part of Saturday Night Live just as he was getting ready to exit. They played Scott and Kate, who are pathetically average suburbanites. Wanting to help their teenager Alex (Ryan Simpkins) attend her dream school, they get roped into a scheme by their shady neighbor Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), launching an underground casino out of Frank’s basement, an illegal enterprise that ends up being so successful that they attract the attention of a local mobster (Jeremy Renner).
The film was personal for Cohen, who admitted, “I have two kids and I’m looking at my 529 and it’s got zero dollars, and then I look in my bank account and there’s not much more. You have that terror, and you just try to deal with it through making a movie.” In that same interview, he warned, “The culture is in a really dark time right now and I think viewers will be surprised by how weirdly dark [this movie] is. It’s evocative of the times.” And indeed, The House is rated R, but not just because of the swearing: This comedy is actually more violent and graphic than you might expect. It’s certainly the only Will Ferrell film in which his character tries to intimidate a cheat at the card table, the poor guy ending up getting a finger chopped off in gory fashion.
If you have a movie with Ferrell, Poehler and Mantzoukas — not to mention Nick Kroll, Allison Tolman, Michaela Watkins, Sam Richardson and other funny people — you’re already halfway there, but The House squanders a lot of good will on tedious improvised scenes and a nonsensical plot. You keep waiting for the funny people to be funny, but instead the film is filled with moments where Ferrell and Poehler flail around, trying to spontaneously generate laughs out of bits that just don’t work. The House is an excellent reminder that even the best comedians can’t produce miracles: There are few films in which so many talented folks just seem so lost, the characters never quite believable and the escalating stakes always feeling strained.
Audiences had a sense The House stunk long before its release. The same weekend that the film came out, Despicable Me 3 and Baby Driver were also opening, those studios doing a lot more to get the word out. By comparison, The House, despite its star power, had almost no buzz and wasn’t shown to critics, a sure sign of a disaster. Sure enough, the reviews were brutal, Ferrell getting some of the worst notices of his career. Poisoned with bad buzz, the film debuted all the way down at No. 6 in its opening weekend, behind films like Cars 3 and Wonder Woman, which had been out already for weeks. At least when Ferrell’s 2009 remake of Land of the Lost tanked, it crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. The House just vanished, bringing in only $34 million on a budget of $40 million. It’s like the movie never even happened.
And yet, there were people who went to bat for it. In his sympathetic review for The New York Times, critic A.O. Scott wrote, “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.” And a couple months after its release, Chance the Rapper took to Twitter to defend The House, declaring, “If the film critics of today can’t find why The House is a comedic delicacy then I don’t wanna hear anymore reviews.”
I know I’m poop in Chance’s eyes, but I do think The House is awful. (Looking back at the review I wrote at the time, I actually said, “the film is a black hole that sucks comedy into its vortex, never to be seen again.”) But the ideas that Cohen tries to tackle — the anxiety of paying for college, the fear of being a bad parent, the quiet desperation of suburban malaise — are potent enough that I still see the good movie that could have been made out of this material. While The House’s pseudo-crime-caper narrative falters, it touches on a collective panic that everyday Americans will no longer be able to give their kids a better life than they had themselves. Like an inept Breaking Bad — or a Sopranos populated by morons — The House argued that the security of a middle-class existence couldn’t protect you from the harsh financial realities of the modern world. Where earlier Ferrell comedies were generally sunny, this one had an unmistakably ugly edge to it.
Plus, the movie highlighted a new phase in the veteran comic’s career. In The Other Guys, Ferrell’s second-to-last film with McKay, he played the sort of milquetoast dullard that would soon become his new speciality — even if Allen Gamble had a secret past that ultimately revealed the character’s darker side. As Ferrell aged out of playing Ron Burgundy types — an amusing series of cocky alpha-male idiots — he embraced the mediocrity of middle-aged dudes whose best days were behind them. Especially in Get Hard and Daddy’s Home, Ferrell essayed privileged white blandness, the characters often struggling to reclaim their coolness, if they were ever cool to begin with.
As Scott, Ferrell tried to find the humor in a benign dummy who play-acts being a tough guy once he learns what it takes to be a casino boss. The joke falls flat in The House, but it speaks to Ferrell’s recent curiosity about what happens to guys who wake up one day and realize they’re boring nonentities whose life has passed them by. He’d revisit this type a few years later in the so-so comedy-drama Downhill, where he’s a stunningly average father and husband discovering how much his family despises him. This current stretch of films hasn’t resulted in many good movies, but it’s an intriguing pivot for Ferrell, who turns 55 in July. Clearly, clueless suburban dads are speaking to him more than Ricky Bobby these days.
There probably won’t be many appreciation posts for The House today, probably not many hot takes arguing for its misunderstood brilliance. Without question, it’s one of Ferrell’s biggest misfires. After The House, he continued to focus on silliness, reuniting with Step Brothers co-star John C. Reilly for Holmes & Watson and teaming up with Rachel McAdams for Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. “There’s just so much going on in the world,” Ferrell said in 2021, “and sometimes it’s nice to turn your brain off.” But even in The House, Ferrell had things on his mind. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been able to get this movie out of my head. There’s a lot of serious stuff at the heart of The House — but, unfortunately, not enough that’s funny.