Will Ferrell experiments with dad comedy in The House

In Will Ferrell’s new movie The House, the comic actor plays the father of an incoming college freshman. Age-wise, this makes perfect sense; Ferrell is nearly 50, and having his daughter be a burgeoning adult probably more accurately reflects typical parent ages than, say, Adam Sandler, who is only a year older than Ferrell but has been stuck parenting mostly tweens on-screen for about a decade. Sandler is a major comparison point not just because of his age, but because of that tenure as a movie dad, which has by now amounted to around a dozen movies, many of which are explicitly about fatherhood (or Sandler’s sitcom-sentimental version of it, anyway).

This happens to most big comedy stars as they get older, especially guys – they need to pay tribute to their real-life families, reflect their real-life priorities, and nod to their aging fanbase by rejecting their youthful vigor/anger/anarchy in favor of gentler dad antics. Ben Stiller spent a whole comedy trilogy preparing himself for the rigors of family life; Sandler made a movie about dads screwing around and busting each other’s balls on vacation, and it’s his only live-action project so far to spawn a sequel; as early as 1997, just three years into his career as a superstar, Jim Carrey was playing a liar who needs to learn to be a better parent to his disappointed moppet.

Ferrell, though, has resisted this role, at least in movies. During his seven years on Saturday Night Live, he was a go-to father figure. His very first showcase sketch had him manning a barbecue, pausing every so often to scream, with increasing frustration and intensity, at unseen off-camera children to “GET OFF THE SHED.” Ferrell was a natural fit in these parts, with his height, soft belly, and slightly beady eyes – he could appear cuddly or menacing, sometimes within the same sketch. Later in his run on the show, he had a recurring bit where two parents made inane conversation over dinner, a symphony of plate-clinking silverware their backing track, until their teenage daughter would interrupt them and send Ferrell into an apoplectic but impotent rage.

But in his movies, Ferrell has favored man-child roles over the frustrated dad figure – often to great effect. In his five terrific comedies directed by Adam McKay, he plays a father just twice, and it usually feels like a comic afterthought. Ricky Bobby is the neglectful, bad-influence parent to a pair of terrible little hellions who are only whipped into shape by the grace of his mother (Jane Lynch). Ron Burgundy eventually sires a child, but their relationship in Anchorman 2 is based largely around his clumsiness with paternal warmth. Ron doesn’t have to win back his kid’s love so much as acknowledge him as a child. In movies like Step Brothers, Ferrell is firmly on the child side of the parent-child relationship, and even when he does have on-screen children, they’re just as likely to be part of a joke scheme as to provide some kind of emotional backbone (or, as with many comedians making family-centric movies, a cheap shortcut).

There are signs that this may be changing. Daddy’s Home casts the former belligerent 40-year-old stepson as a stepfather himself, eager to please his wife’s kids and competing against their deadbeat biological father (Mark Wahlberg). That movie was popular enough to get a quickie sequel coming later this year, and The House is his one big starring role in between the two. It’s a strange one, because it has the set-up of any number of subpar vehicles for popular comedians, especially from the Liar Liar age: Realizing that they don’t have the money to send their beloved daughter to the college of her choice, parents Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Amy Poehler) decide to help their loony friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) open an underground casino in their quiet suburban neighborhood. Zany antics with a quasi-relatable hook seems like a recipe for another Daddy’s Home-style softening, but in a peculiar if enjoyable touch, The House is rated R, and plays fast and loose with reality.

Maybe too fast: As brisk as it is at 88 minutes, it has the distinct feel that at least 10 minutes have been unceremoniously chopped out of it. Multiple running gags appear mid-stride, without an actual set-up, and so many recognizable comic actors appear in nothing roles, making so many references to information the movie never gets out directly. But not all of the cast is ill-served, and it’s the most Upright Citizens Brigade-friendly ensemble to grace multiplex screens in ages. In particular, it very much resembles a strong night at ASSSSSSSCAT in about 2004, when Poehler, Mantzoukas, Rob Huebel, Lennon Parham, and a cameoing Ian Roberts were all regulars. A few sequences have the lunatic progression of vintage UCB, as when a neighborly rivalry at the basement casino escalates into physical confrontation, which then turns into a gambling-ready boxing match, which then turns into a no-holds-barred lady-versus-lady brawl when the men go down far too quickly for the crowd’s tastes. It’s blessedly far from Daddy’s Home territory, where even the broadest pratfalls were rendered as bloodless cartoons.

The House’s scattershot mix of violent slapstick and heightened reality has a distinct “yes, and” improv sensibility – except when it inexplicably interjects to add “no, but” in the form of the hatchet-y editing that keeps some set pieces from building properly, and a lazy indulgence of “jokes” where people say stuff like “that isn’t a thing,” “that literally makes no sense,” “you are clearly lying to me,” and so on. These occasional commentaries are fine, but do it too much, and the movie starts to feel like it’s interrupting itself, killing its own comic momentum.

This happens in the big moments of The House, too – big revelations just kind of flop out in front of the characters, like the filmmakers (or the studio) were in too much of a hurry to let anything properly culminate. Yet the movie’s breeziness about its plot, its characters’ wrongdoing, and the general high-concept silliness may also be its salvation: It stumbles around, but it doesn’t get bogged down. Filmmakers Brendan O’Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen co-wrote the Neighbors movies, and though The House is a lot sloppier, it shares their refreshing sensibility regarding parenting: namely, that the process of having a child does not automatically turn you into an expert in anything except possibly loving that child. Ferrell and Poehler don’t have much room to create full-blooded characters, but they’re both at least allowed to be endearing dopes in their own way. They both start to revel in their pit-boss authority; their parental dedication finally gives them permission to behave badly, and with greater confidence.

In a more coherent movie, this would be more explicitly because of their fears about becoming boring empty-nesters. In a more insightful one, their relationship with the daughter character might carry more weight, satirical or otherwise. When the movie assembles a long scene where Ferrell and Poehler stumble home drunk late at night and attempt to hide from their daughter and her friends, who are all high and attempting to hide from the parents, it hints at a direction that it otherwise avoids: The parallel stories of a teenager and her parents both acting out while trying not to disappoint each other. Ryan Simpkins, playing the daughter, gives a nicely low-key performance in the face of her parents’ nuttiness, but the movie doesn’t really capitalize on it. Her desire to party with her friends during her last pre-college summer is more of a passing irony than an actual plot thread, and the movie spends way more time with the adults.

In some ways, this is a relief. Ferrell has always had a weirder comic vision than the likes of Daddy’s Home can really accommodate, and The House has plenty of wonderful offhand weirdness, like the way that this illegal homegrown casino quickly hires a stand-up comedian to do extremely regionally specific material about the neighborhood where all of the casino patrons live (even then, he’s playing to an appreciative audience of one). It may be slapdash, but it’s defiantly unsentimental. Maybe it’s that quality that scared whatever executives or producers insisted on slashing the running time, or decided that it couldn’t be screened for critics (do they know that most of Sandler’s movies have screened for press, at least before his Netflix deal?). Daddy’s Home 2 almost certainly won’t be as funny as The House, and almost certainly will screen for press, unless Rotten Tomatoes paranoia overtakes the industry even faster than it has over the past few months.

But if Ferrell is going to dad it up on screen – and at this point, he can hardly avoid it – I hope he finds something as inspired as Step Brothers or The Other Guys, which comment on domesticity without getting all squishy. His Saturday Night Live dads were wonderful creations, buttoned-up rage cases trying their best to maintain their mildness, suggesting that Ferrell might actually bring some uncomfortable truth, not just truisms and homilies, to his dad phase. To the extent that The House addresses parenting, it points in that direction: Parents can look upstanding and responsible but turn out to be flying completely blind! But true to form, the movie just kinda blurts this out and runs away. The best Ferrell comedy tends to sink into its absurdity before emerging with a real satirical point. Anyone with such a fondness for dinner-table scenes ought to be able to step up and give dad comedy a better name.