Over the last couple of years, Will Ferrell’s comic persona has been moving further and further towards a kind of intensified normality, a milquetoast demeanour that was always present from his earliest comedy but has taken on a new iteration as the Brat Pack has dissolved and given way to a new generation of comedians. The tipping-point was probably A Difficult Adoption, the Lifetime movie that he made with Kirsten Wiig – a release that might have been expected to be thoroughly ironised, but that instead more or less played as a conventional Lifetime movie, with a few sparse comic flourishes. Therein lay the comedy, of course, and the rest of Ferrell’s filmography has followed suit, often recalling – or playing as a sustained parody of – his lukewarm indie drama Everything Must Go, rather than the more extravagant and hyperbolic comic personae of his heyday. On the big screen, Daddy’s Home felt like the main transition point, as Ferrell sunk himself deeper and deeper into a suburban mildness that perpetually felt as if it must give way, at some crucial moment, to one of his trademark freakouts. The freakout never came, however, giving Ferrell an odd, bottled-up vibe, overflowing with frustration but agonisingly devoid of the kind of cathartic or climactic release of frustration that was so characteristic of his classic era of comedies.
In part, this transition in Ferrell’s comic persona can be explained by a simple fact – he looks and sounds, well, normal, and that normality has only intensified (as it so often does) with age. Indeed, so well can he play normality that, more and more, it’s simply a matter of seeing him in a role normally ascribed for a dramatic (or less comic) actor that constitutes the comedy of his films. Nowhere has that ability to exude normality served him better than in The House, Andrew Jay Cohen’s savage parody of suburban normality, and a film so anarchic and antisocial in the way it conceives of normality that it was almost destined to fail at the box office, and with critics. At the heart of it at are Kate and Scott Johansen, a milquetoast couple played by Ferrell and Amy Poehler, whose world is turned upside down when they realise that they may not be able to send their daughter Alex, played by Ryan Simpkins, to her college of choice. In large part, that’s because they were depending upon a scholarship awarded by their local council – a scholarship the council can no longer afford in an era of fiscal conservatism, especially since they desperately need the funds for the construction of a community pool. Not only do Kate and Scott seem astonished that the townsfolk would prefer to receive the pool rather than to see tax dollars go towards their daughter’s education, but they receive an even greater surprise upon realising that the emotional energy of the entire community isn’t invested in the ongoing upwards mobility of their family – or, rather that their family aren’t as exemplary as they once thought they were, which is almost more of a shock than not receiving the scholarship in the first place.
From the outset, then, this is a downsizing narrative, and the first stage in Kate and Scott’s downsizing is relinquishing their dream of an empty nest, as they head to Las Vegas for what was meant to be their retirement party, but is now suffused with their dread of what the future might hold for them and their daughter. It’s at this point that the film starts to shift towards a manic, urgent, escalating intensity that never quite settles into comedy, forcing Cohen to pack his mise-en-scenes full of comic cameos and character actors in order to articulate his vision as a discernible genre. Admittedly, that intensity has lurked around the story before this point, but it’s only in Vegas that it graduates into a fully-fledged gambler’s high – the high of having nothing left to lose – as Scott blows all his savings on the roulette tables, leaving him and Kate in an even more desperate situation than before. In itself, this Vegas weekend would making a pretty good film, as Kate and Scott draw upon the classic trope of making a pilgrimage to the Strip before settling into a normcore suburbia for good, as occurs, say, in The Hangover trilogy, which is a constant point of reference during these earlier scenes, and then across the film as a whole. Yet The House is even more deeply embedded in the austerity and precarity that the American suburbs were just starting to glimpse when the first Hangover film was released, with the result that Vegas can’t function, here, as a way of differentiating and sequestering white suburban security from everything that might undermine it. Instead, Cohen distills this nightmarish gambling sequence into a precarity-principle that percolates its way across even the most sacrosanct suburban spaces showcased by the film, creating what must be the most anxious film of 2017 in the process.
No surprise, then, that when Kate and Scott return home, their neighbor Frank, played by Jason Mantzoukas, has come up with a plan to transform their own house into a local, underground, invitation-only casino operating outside of local regulations. With Frank’s catchphrase that “the house always wins” taken as a mantra for the film as a whole, the stage is set for a darkly parodic effort to reinstate the suburban home as an site of inviolable consensus in Hollywood cinema, as this home casino gradually re-embeds Kate and Scott back into the neighborhood that dared to remove them from pride of place by denying their daughter her scholarship. Nowhere is that clearer than in the entrance to the casino itself, which users can only access by parking in a local market, getting a receipt from the market, walking to the darkest corner of the carpark, slipping through a hole in the adjoining fence, and then traversing a panorama of woods, parkland and backyards – the connective tissue of the neighborhood – before finally arriving at the Johansens’ back door and entering through the cellar with the aid of a special password. This syntactic and spatial chain is one of the highlights of the film, gradually ballooning out to a picaresque sequence that ends up differentiating and determining the characteristics of each member of the local community, since no two people seem capable of negotiating and navigating it in quite the same way.
At the same time, this tortuous point of access beautifully demonstrates the extent to which the decline of the suburban house as a normative space in American cinema has also resulted in a diminished capacity for mainstream filmmakers to envisage the connective tissue and community that once constituted suburbia, if only because this tissue was stitched around a fantasy of hearth and home that no longer seems tenable as anything other than a fantasy – and a fairly bankrupt fantasy at that. In order to recover their capacity to act as a nodal point in their local community, then, the Johansens have to appropriate something of Vegas’ radical and phantasmatic placelessness, meaning that they can only reinvest their home with its sacrosanct aspirations by deterretorialising it even further, and reducing it to a fantasy of itself in the process. For that reason the film, which quickly becomes synonymous with the house, plays as something of a phantom experience as well, a placeholder for charm, charisma and comedy that is never quite charming, charismatic or comic in itself. For, despite the supposed novelty of remaking their suburban home as Vegas, and their living room as a casino, the awful revelation of Kate and Scott’s supposed innovation is that their home was continuous with Vegas all along, at least in its aspiration to a simulated, airbrushed American that doesn’t ever exist, and didn’t ever exist.
To a large extent, Kate and Scott’s efforts to wrest some kind of authenticity from this fantasy is the real drama of the film, and what ensures that it can never quite achieve a comic register, just because they never quite achieve the catharsis, or satisfaction, that comedy seems to require. At the very most, it’s a comedy in which we never quite reach the payoff, or big joke, not unlike the way in which Ferrell never quite reaches the sublime freakout that appears to be promised by Daddy’s Home. Without that climax, comedy turns out to be a profoundly stressful experience, and places a considerable amount of stress upon the Johansens as well, with Kate and Scott cracking one joke after another to make Alex feel as if everything is OK, only to find that none of them land, and that their desperate efforts to retain their jovial family tone in the face of precarity just distorts and disrupts their relationship with their daughter even more than the withdrawal of the scholarship in the first place. In one terrific scene, Kate and Scott go on a drunken spree throughout the neighbourhood after their first really successful night with the casino, looking for some kind of cathartic outlet for all their bottled-up adrenalin, but instead coming across Alex and her friends trying pot for the first time. Between Kate and Scott’s manic intensity and Alex’s awry high, the film can’t quite reconfigure the relationship between these parents and their daughter as strictly comic in the wake of the casino – in the wake of the house – necessitating a purely fantastic finale for them to come to any kind of real rapprochement.
Yet to focus too much on this relationship – or any relationship – would be to suggest that this is more of a character-driven film than it actually is. Instead, the house is the main character, gradually expanding its tentacles out into the surrounding neighborhood until it becomes a neighborhood in itself, replete with oxygen therapy, massage rooms, a bar and a swimming pool, in pointed contrast to the public pool proposed by the town council, whose regular community meetings are gradually displaced and depleted by the house’s growing clientele. At the same time, though, the house never quite sheds its secrecy, or the sense of being sequestered in a privileged exemplarity – it is always “the” house, rather than “a” house” – and never quite migrates into public space, or constitutes a public sphere either, even or especially as it eventually gathers the entire middle-class neighbourhood within its confines. While Kate and Scott might appear to be nostalgic for community then, it’s only community insofar as it is constituted and organised under the surveillance of the white middle-class home, here condensed to the cameras that allow the homeowners to catch anyone cheating and, in one graphic scene, to actually torture them into a confession, with the result that it’s a foregone conclusion when the police decide to join the house as well.
In some ways, that’s a fairly fascist scenario, but the film conceals it by reaching back to an older kind of stylised white swagger and gangsterdom, culminating with a sustained 1930s pastiche in which Kate and Scott, now clad in period attire, chow down on lobster mornay in a “fancy” Italian restaurant, before heading back to the house as the opening theme from The Sopranos plays over the glitziest and most extravagant montage sequence so far. What ensues over this extraordinary sequence of images is a fantasy of white gangster culture that never had to deal with the revisionism of the 1990s, and in which the wound culture of Tony Soprano, and his melancholic devolution of Mafioso and machismo, is utterly unthinkable. In essence, Kate and Scott reach back through successive generations of gangster (and gangsta) culture to the last real moment – the 1930s – at which gangsters and Wasps could be drawn from more or less the same demographic, wryly framing white flight as just another inflection and redirection of gangsterdom, rather than a real retreat from it.
Of course, that also necessitates Kate and Scott ironically adopting black gangsta culture, and yet so exponentially does this appropriation escalate that it never seems to know whether it’s self-parodic, partly because their swagger is built precisely on a prescience of appropriation, an awareness of importing foreign (or outdated) modes of charisma but still doing it nonetheless. In other words, The House can’t help but betray a certain anxiety at the way in which the very structural inability of black culture to identify with the suburban swagger of white America has itself outswaggered white America – an anxiety that is especially clear in the first fight at the casino, the fight that sets all the subsequent swagger in motion, which takes place between a black man and a white man, but which the house are keen to ensure its patrons doesn’t constitute “a race war,” if only because these assurances themselves become a point of contention, adding fuel to the fire and rendering the fight even more appealing to prospective gamblers and frustrated suburban attendees.
Far from assuaging anxiety, then, the “house” – uneasily – sequesters it as spectacle, to the point where Kate and Scott effectively offer their home as a cinematic experience, as or a placeholder for a cinematic consensus of suburban normality that can no longer be found in a suburban multiplex. No wonder, then, that the house takes on such a vertiginously hyperreal quality, fusing itself with the structure of the film so thoroughly that the film often feels as if it is taking place within the house, rather than vice versa. Certainly, the house leaves Vegas far behind in terms of spectacle and simulation, as its fixtures and features collect and intensify all the anxieties that typically drive people to Vegas in the first place in films of this kind, narrowing the pilgrimage to the Strip – so often presented as portage into another dimension – to the length of a single suburban tract. By the end of the film, that tract has become synonymous with the civic life of the town itself, as the police side with the Johansens against the mayor, played by John Kroll. Ostensibly, that’s because this public official is skimming money, but in reality it feels as if this “corruption” subplot is only there to disguise the extent to which the Johansens have appropriated the entire government structure under the aegis of their suburban exemplarity, transforming themselves into the charismatic kernel of the neighborhood, and chief agent of neighborhood surveillance and security, long before any of the local townsfolk have reason to doubt the council’s integrity.
In a kind of dark, depraved, dystopian sequel to Parks and Recreation, the Johansens now become both law-abiding citizens and law-creating citizens– it’s here that Poehler’s chirpy charisma and “civil” screen persona feels so critical – even or especially as their house never properly segues into a fully-fledged public sphere, and even or especially as their relation to their daughter – the supposed motivation for it all – has long been removed from the picture. For, one of the most bizarre consequences of the “house” is that it renders them more peremptory, cursory and dismissive when it comes to Alex herself, as their escalating rhetoric of reproductive futurity eventually bypasses her entirely to fixate on their own status as suburban guardians, just as their need to “provide” as parents utterly eclipses their actual parenting – a common enough trope in suburban melodrama, but played for laughs here in some of the bleakest and most nihilist moments in recent Hollywood cinema. The point of crisis comes, as it must, when Alex arrives at the “house” with her friends – all the while unaware that her parents are the house – at the very same moment that a real posse of gangsters arrive to take Kate and Scott to task for accidentally amputating a client’s finger. Here, as throughout the film, the ensuing hyper-violence – and Alex’s rescue – appears to occur as if by accident, but the clinically programmatic structure of the film always makes these shocking moments feel like a logical and intentional outcome of the house as well, even or especially as these actions become more and more self-immolating, and threaten to collapse the house under its ever intensifying efforts to protect its assets.
No surprise, then, that the film alienated viewers, especially since it sometimes plays more like a final draft than a finished product, and yet that skeletal quality is what makes its conceit and worldview so bleak and uncompromising as well, since what we have here is, in effect, the substructure of every Hollywood film about suburbia divested of the charismatic and atmospheric padding that can make it so palatable even to the most sceptical of critics. It’s no coincidence, either, that Kroll plays the mayor, since his background in celebrity roasts imbues all the comedy with a similarly cruel, personal and pointed quality – even if it also clarifies just how strenuously this particular family refuses to be roasted. By the time the Johansens break into his office and literally install themselves as the political body of the town, then, it almost feels like justice, especially after ninety minutes of anarchic almost-comedy that’s always on the very verge of tipping over into ultra-violence. Yet the normality that resumes after this break-in is, in a way, the real horror of the film – the moment at which it finally graduates into a vision of suburban horror for the age of austerity – as the police and councillors take the Johansens’ side in the central council chambers, never missing a beat in supporting this violent, antisocial oligarchy in the name of law and order.
For a moment, I thought that Cohen might try to rupture this return to normality, bit what we get instead is a kind of intensified, performative normality, as the Johansens renew their vows and Alex heads to college on a scholarship after all, even if it means that the town has to go without a swimming pool for at least another year. In fact, the final note is quite serious, as Kate and Scott tear up while imagining growing older with each other, and feeding each other soup in their twilight years. While the film may, briefly and half-heartedly, return to their gangsta mode, this sentimental sincerity is really the last note, and its milquetoast normality is the most radical gesture of all, as Cohen settles us into a completely conservative Hollywood register after having exposed the atrocity we had to witness, smooth over and smother in order to get there. Perhaps that’s all normcore is in the end, but to its credit The House never quite ironises or stylises Kate and Scott as a normcore couple either, ending with a syrupy sheen that stands at the same awry distance from sentiment as the film’s comic set pieces do from comedy. As a result, I can’t think of a recent film I’ve seen in which the blooper roll plays such a pronounced function, as it fills out the running time, offers a bit of breathing space from this suffocating normality, and “reminds” us that what we watched was a comedy. Yet for those very reasons it’s ultimately truer to The House to stop the film before the final credits roll and the bloopers come in to domesticate things, and to instead remain with the unsettling resumption and reinstatement of suburban normality that renders this such an unusual and troubling film.