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The House

Day-to-day life is series of gambles: taking a different route to work to save time, refusing to carry an umbrella on an overcast day, agreeing to a blind date, crossing a road clear of traffic before the green man flashes. On the whole, the risks are relatively low and the odds of success are stacked in your favour. When it comes to the spin of a roulette wheel, the turn of a blackjack card or the throw of two dice on a craps table, all bets are off because when the chips are cashed, there is only one winner: the house. How ironic that writer-director Andrew Jay Cohen's comedy The House, about a cash-strapped couple who start an illegal gambling den to fund their daughter's university education, hits a hot losing streak in the opening frames and haemorrhages our affection and patience at an alarming rate. The script, co-written by Brendan O'Brien, bets heavily on the high-rolling comedic talents of Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler and Jason Mantzoukas to recoup big laughs from a loopy plot, garish characterisation and two sequences of gratuitous blood-letting. Sadly, almost everything the cast risks in pursuit of sympathy giggles - including lopping off a limb of actor Jeremy Renner - is a bust. Scott Johansen (Ferrell) and his wife Kate (Poehler) are proud parents of an academically gifted daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins), who hopes to attend Bucknell University. They plan to fund her tuition with a generous annual gift from their sleepy community of Fox Meadow. "The scholarship is an indulgence the town can no longer afford," reveals councilman Bob Schaeffer (Nick Kroll) at a residents' meeting in response to swingeing budget cuts. The Johansens are distraught. They have no savings and can't extend a line of credit with their financial adviser (Allison Tolman) so they must shatter their only child's dreams. In the nick of time, Scott's best friend Frank (Mantzoukas), who has been threatened with divorce by his wife Raina (Michaela Watkins) over his gambling addiction, proposes an ingenious but illegal solution. The Johansens should partner him in establishing a small-scale casino at his house, and profit from the bad luck of thrill-seeking friends and neighbours. Residents secretly flock under the nose of police officer Chandler (Rob Huebel), and Scott and Kate rediscover that loving feeling as the profits roll in... Your chances of laughing uproariously throughout The House are comparable with a seven-figure jackpot win on the national lottery. The innately likeable ensemble cast are squandered in thankless roles, and Ferrell and Poehler catalyse inert on-screen chemistry. We're reminded by the live casinos that clutter late-night TV channels and the internet to stop gambling when the fun stops. Following that advice, audiences who take a punt on Cohen's picture should walk out after five minutes.