As far as live-action comedies go this year, it’s been kind of a drought. I have yet to see one really good funny movie break into the classic or near-classic territory. There have been a lot of critical flops like Fistfight, Snatched, Rough Night, Baywatch and now this one. However, I don’t think I hated any of those movies (even though half of them were barely watchable) but the problem remains: no great comedies have been made since the year began. This one didn’t exactly break the mold either but it basically ended up being another enjoyable silly comedy and one that got a lot nastier and pushed the boundaries of taste more than I expected.
Scott (Will Ferrell) & Kate Johanssen (Amy Poehler) are approaching that time in their life when their teenage daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) is set to ‘leave the nest’ and attend college. The good news: she gets accepted. The bad news: the town has decided to forego the usual annual scholarship award in lieu of building a new swimming pool. Knowing this, desperation sits in when recently-dumped friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) comes up with a crazy scheme to make more than enough money to pay Alex’s tuition and for him to keep his house: they open a casino… illegally.
First of all, the plot is pretty straight-forward and for a comedy like this, that is perfectly fine. The writing is sometimes suspect though. For instance, Frank presents the casino idea so he can keep his house as he has basically gambled all his money away and then we also get later scenes of him adding things to the casino that make it more extravagant without consulting Scott or Kate. This would make you think it would lead to tension later on but they never go back to that moment so it seems like a total waste crossed with a last-minute rewrite. There also stands the issue of why they don’t just pay Alex’s tuition as soon as they make enough money at the casino fairly quickly but of course that would ruin the entire premise of the rest of the movie.
Despite that, the film’s strengths lie with its performers. Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler make for a good comedic pair despite never really feeling like a true couple. They are funny together and have good chemistry but they are more like buddies rather than husband and wife. The same goes for Ryan Simpkins, who plays their daughter. She is given most of the thankless stuff to do in the movie but again she doesn’t really seem like she’s supposed to be their daughter as the chemistry for that isn’t quite there. Jason Mantzoukas might be the stand-out here despite my obvious bias as I am a huge fan of anything the man does including the How Did This Get Made? Podcast. Check it out if you haven’t already. Seriously. Anyway, it’s nice to see him get a pretty big part in this movie and he rivals Ferrell with his ability to go from insane back down to calm effortlessly. Nick Kroll plays a villainous character and isn’t given a whole lot to do but is funny with his over-the-top nastiness and Rob Huebel gives a pretty amusing turn as a bit of a dimwitted cop.
The movie takes a sharp left turn into dark territory about halfway through after an incident involving our three leads, a ‘card counter’ and an axe but aside from a quick montage, it never feels like the film truly embraces its dark side as much as it could have done. Still, the stuff with Ferrell acting like ‘The Butcher’ and the numerous references to Casino and Goodfellas are pretty funny and make for a few inspired sequences.
The film’s runtime is fairly brisk too and it only clocks in at about 88 minutes (including credits) so if you end up not enjoying some of it, at least the pain won’t linger for long. As it stands, I thought it was a pretty enjoyable waste of time.
Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)
* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)