Chance the Rapper Was Correct: ‘The House’ Is Good and Critics Were Wrong
Will Ferrell’s worst reviewed movie of the century isn’t Zoolander 2 or Land of the Lost or even Bewitched. It’s The House, his comedy from earlier this year about a father who, in a desperate attempt to pay for his daughter’s college tuition, opens an underground casino with the help of his wife (Amy Poehler) and best friend (Jason Mantzoukas).
Warner Bros. decided not to hold press screenings for critics; those who reviewed it had to buy a ticket like anyone else when the film opened in June. This is rarely a good sign; typically if a studio has even a bit of faith in a movie, they will screen it for critics and hope for the best. Refusing to screen something is often a tacit admission that it’s a piece of junk and will get bad reviews anyway, so why bother? Even if it’s not a tacit admission, that’s how it’s often interpreted, and even reported. The New York Daily News, for example, wrote an article called “Critics Not Invited to The House. Does That Mean Its Guarantee It Blows?” Whether it was a coincidence or a self-fulfilling prophecy, the critics who saw it thought it did indeed blow. The film got a score of just 17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with only 11 positive reviews out of the 66 it received.
The House did have a couple champions. A.O. Scott, one of the The New York Times’ chief film critics, gave it a positive review, and called it “a dark, startlingly bloody journey into the bitter, empty, broken heart of the American middle class.” And just a few weeks ago Chance the Rapper went on a brief Twitter rant, hailing the movie as “funny as f—” and wondering why critics were so hard on it.
I never got to see The House in theaters. (If Warners had held a press screening, I would have attended.) But with the film coming out on Blu-ray this week, I watched it and can now confirm: Chance the Rapper was right and most of my colleagues were wrong: The House is a very funny movie.
I could list the reasons why, but trying to describe the jokes in The House would be as bad of an idea as trying to pay for my daughter’s college tuition by opening an underground casino in my basement. Instead, I will let the film speak for itself. For example, this scene is funny (particularly when Will Ferrell says the word “Geppetto”):
This scene is also funny. (It’s also way funnier in the actual movie, because the severing of this poor guy’s finger is graphic, and blood spurts everywhere and covers Will Ferrell.)
A.O. Scott’s review was right on the money; without succumbing to despair, The House speaks to a feeling in the air in America that times are hard and getting harder, that everyone is out for themselves, that our country is fractured and angry and sick. The scene where Will Ferrell gets horrifically bathed in another man’s blood after he accidentally chops off his finger is an incredible piece of physical comedy. It’s also suggests that the only way to get ahead in 2017 is to literally take an axe to the people standing in your way.
The House also upends one of the most pervasive (and accurate) criticisms of mainstream Hollywoood comedies: That they’re all about immature man-children whose fun is constantly being threatened by scolding, nagging women. In The House, Amy Poehler doesn’t just enable Ferrell’s mischief, she actually surpasses him in hilariously bad behavior. (In the “Stranger Danger” scene above, she mentions her college nickname, “Smoke-a-Lot-of-Pot-and-Pee-Outside Kate,” and by the end of the film she has reenacted both of those habits onscreen.) Ferrell and Poehler are true equals here; she matches his lunacy and stupidity at every turn. In that way, they’re like a real married couple, only much funnier.
Although The House was an extreme example, it is part of a consistent pattern of critics being unfairly harsh on Ferrell’s films, whether they are funny or not. Critics tend to praise his movies with director Adam McKay and crap on just about everything else. Over the last 10 years, the movies Ferrell made with McKay averaged 69 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The average score for the 13 movies Ferrell starred in for directors is just 43.
Are Ferrell’s movies with McKay better than the stuff he does without him? Absolutely. And I’m not suggesting Ferrell’s filmography is perfect; disappointments like Get Hard earned their poor reviews. But critics gave equally bad scores (or worse) to his funny movies too. Ferrell’s underrated basketball comedy Semi-Pro has a 21 on Rotten Tomatoes; his satisfying spiritual sequel to The Other Guys, Daddy’s Home, got a 31.
All movie opinions are subjective and there’s no accounting for taste, particularly in the world of comedy. If you think Will Ferrell isn’t funny, no amount of my complaining will convince you otherwise. But I’ve long wondered why he doesn’t get credit for being as much of a risk taker as he is. He’s good in his rare dramatic turns. (His last full-on drama, Everything Must Go, is his best-reviewed live-action film of the last 10 years besides The Other Guys.) His Spanish language film, Casa de Mi Padre, isn’t a masterpiece, but if a dramatic actor attempted a similar experiment, he or she would surely be hailed as a daring innovator.
Film critics often take the Academy to task for failing to recognize great comedy work onscreen. It is much easier to win an Oscar in a dramatic film than in a comedic one. In the extremely rare cases that a comedian does win an Oscar, people speculate that there must have been some mistake or screwup in the voting or the envelope; just ask Marisa Tomei. But I look at the list of the Top 100 Comedies on Rotten Tomatoes, and I’m borderline aghast. A lot of the movies on it aren’t even really comedies. Cool Hand Luke? 101 Dalmatians? Enough Said? Silver Linings Playbook? The Artist? Meanwhile, where is The Naked Gun or This Is Spinal Tap or Caddyshack or Mean Girls or Bridesmaids or literally any movie ever made by Mel Brooks? They’re nowhere to be found.
I’m with Chance. I want to read more film journalists who know a comedic delicacy when they see one, and who are willing to admit that they laugh when Amy Poehler pees outside. (I sure did!) Even if Warners didn’t show it to the press, The House deserved better. Don’t take the critics’ word for it. Take this critic’s word for it.