Wednesday , October 18 2017

‘House’ satire of economic desperation – Comedy’s best friend Mantzoukas says he’s no scumbag

At times, you watch a bad comedy and see hints of the good comedy it might have been. In the case of “The House”, a crude, slipshod, tonally uneven, once in a while chuckle-worthy farce, you have to look very hard and imagine a great many better jokes — just what the film’s co-writer and director, Andrew Jay Cohen, should have been doing.

“The House” stars Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, who were last teamed together in “Blades of Glory” (2007), as a stuck-in-a-rut suburban couple who open an illegal casino to pay for their daughter’s college tuition. It’s one of those concept comedies built around a sketchbook frame that asks its stars to do a fair amount of improvising — a technique that turns the shooting of a movie into a glorified pitch meeting, since the whole thing is predicated on the premise of “Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler! Are you kidding me? Just let ’em go, and they’re going to kill it!” Ferrell and Poehler are inspired comic actors, but with rare exceptions that’s not how making a truly funny movie works.

“The House” is a satire of economic desperation, like “Fun with Dick and Jane” updated to the age of the collapse of the middle class. But that’s just the excuse. It’s really a comedy of suburban rage — or would be, if it weren’t so random and contrived. Ferrell and Poehler play Scott and Kate Johansen, whose daughter, the level-headed-beyond-her-years Alex (Ryan Simpkins), has just been accepted to Bucknell University. The family thought they were in line for a scholarship from the Fox Meadow city council, but that money has dried up (the local residents would rather build a swimming pool), and they agree not to reveal their predicament to their beloved daughter.

It’s when Scott and Kate take a trip to Vegas along with their ne’er-do-well best friend, the about-to-be-divorced Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), who’s in the midst of slipping into a sinkhole of his own, that a lightbulb goes off: In gambling, the ultimate cliche — because it happens to be true — is that the house always wins. So what if they became the house?

If you hear that idea and think, “Okay, but that’s not actually very funny”, you’d be right. The film seems aware of this, since the whole setting up of the casino in the basement of Frank’s sparsely furnished bachelor colonial, and the putting of the plan into play, happens virtually overnight. Just like that, they’ve got a blackjack table, a craps tables, a roulette wheel, surveillance cameras, and a flashing neon sign that says “Place Your Bets”, plus a clientele of locals all too eager to get into the action. Scott, Kate, and Frank start raking in the money from day one. So where’s the joke?

Resentments

The joke is that the casino becomes a place where everyone gives into his or her inner libertine. There is lust, there is greed, there is cocaine, and long-simmering resentments erupt into screaming matches that get organized into extreme-fighting brawls to take betting action on. Martha (Lennon Parham) and Corsica (Alexandra Daddario), for instance, despise each other — they have a vendetta hinging on a potluck dinner — so they get into the ring for a violent dustup that, it turns out, is merely a warm-up for the bloodshed to come.

That happens when our heroes spot a man counting cards. The scene where Scott, Kate, and Frank drag him into the back room and go all gangster (or, in Poehler’s case, gangsta) on his ass is funny, because these are the least likely kneecap-smashers in history. But then something happens: a moment of Grand Guignol burlesque. Something that makes it look like Andrew Jay Cohen double-checked the marketing metrics and decided that over-the-top gruesome black comedy was in. Suffice to say that Scott, after starting off as a generic Will Ferrell milquetoast, morphs into a fearless badass in shades and a scowl, with the theme from “The Sopranos” playing in the background (in case we didn’t get it).

Twenty-some years ago, when Jason Mantzoukas was a struggling actor and comedian in New York, a casting agent told him that he wasn’t going to work for a while. She said that while he was funny, talented and one of her favorites, he’s not what people pictured when writing roles and was falling through the cracks.

Tall, with a shock of thick, curly black hair, deep set brown eyes and an olive complexion courtesy of his Greek heritage, she said he was both “handsome” and “not handsome enough” and both “too ethnic” and “not ethnic enough”. But she also knew that once someone cast him, he’d work forever.

Mantzoukas insists it was a generous reckoning.

“It was true”, Mantzoukas, 44, said in between sips of mint tea on a sunny evening in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, just a few days before the release of his latest film, “The House”.

The show that “categorically changed the equation” for him was the FX fantasy football sitcom “The League”, which ran for 6 seasons. Mantzoukas played the recurring role of Rafi, a truly wild, deranged and disgusting creation who fans couldn’t help but love. Mantzoukas might not be a household name yet, but Rafi is.

Mantzoukas is emphatically not a scumbag, but he’s not surprised that people think he might be.

“People predominantly assume I’m that person — that I’m a monster”, he said. “Part of me is like, ‘Great, I’m doing a good job convincing you I am this person and I also have not overexposed myself as who I actually am so you know differently’”.

He frequently guest appears on the improv podcast “Comedy Bang Bang” and co-hosts the wonderfully funny movie podcast “How Did This Get Made” with Paul Scheer and June Diane Raphael, yet he’s still not really being himself.

“I feel like I’m playing the villain of podcasts, the heel of podcasts”, he said. “I like antagonizing the audience, poking at them”. This persona, the Rafi-effect and his unique look has impacted, and sometimes limited, the kind of roles he’s offered.

“I get offered a lot of scumbags, lots of ‘weird uncle at the wedding,’ lots of creepy massage guys. But listen, I’ve done that to myself”, he said. His complexion has resulted in him being put up for roles that span a variety of ethnicities, from Greek to Middle Eastern to Hispanic.

“At a certain point I had to be like, ‘I will not do any more auditions with a Middle Eastern accent’”.

In “The House”, Mantzoukas plays the third lead to Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler. A scumbag-lite, he’s the guy who convinces them to start an underground casino in their sleepy suburban town. After stealing scenes for years in supporting roles in everything from “Parks and Recreation”, “Broad City”, “Enlightened” and “Brooklyn 99” to “The Dictator” and “Sleeping with Other People”, it’s arguably his highest profile part to date. (Agencies)

On another level, it’s also just him acting alongside the people he’s been doing improv with for 20 years.

Nick Kroll used to watch him in awe in the early days of the now-legendary comedy breeding ground that is Upright Citizen’s Brigade before they became friends and collaborators. (Agencies)

By Owen Gleiberman

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