Everything Must Go
Directed by Dan Rush
When it comes to the inevitable business of comic actors shifting into drama, Will Ferrell has displayed both more and less caution than his peers. He seems less possessed by the yearning to be taken seriously; a decade or so into his big-screen career, he's only given it a few tries, usually in the seriocomic vein of his latest project, Everything Must Go. But Ferrell doesn't seem reluctant, exactly, or fearful of alienating his fanbase: while performers like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler have made careful, modulated transitions in high-profile prestige pictures, Ferrell has dabbled in indieland, doing drama with the playful whim of a comedian (but thankfully little sad-clown Robin Williams-in-Patch Adams crowd-pleasing).
Ferrell is particularly convincing as an alcoholic salesman in Everything Must Go, perhaps because, with his squinty eyes and amiable paunch, he can look like a middle manager—it's part of what makes his best comedy so grounded in personality even when it comes delightfully unhinged from reason. His Nick Halsey, fired in the film's opening moments for a drinking problem he claims to have "under control," returns home to find that his unseen wife has tossed his belongings out on the lawn, changed the locks on the house, and left. It's unclear what these three actions performed in concert are meant to spurn Nick to do, if anything—one or two of them would make more sense than this combination, bound to encourage exactly the drunken phone calls she would prefer, she notes in a letter, not to receive—but Nick makes no great effort to figure it out. Instead, he sets up camp on his lawn, and his exasperated AA sponsor (Michael Pena) suggests that he hold a yard sale, both to clear out the detritus of his life and to avoid possible arrest for a few days. Nick agrees and enlists a teenager (Christopher Jordan Brown) to help him with the particulars, like watching his stuff as he stumbles off to buy more beer.
Ferrell is capable of both nebbishy underplaying (as in The Other Guys) and cocksure, wrongheaded aggression (as in Talladega Nights) and he calls on both as Nick, who drinks himself into the kind of stupor that disguises his weaknesses and misery as truth-telling. Nick's self-created circumstances are dire to begin with, but rummaging through his past, he goes about the business of really hitting bottom. Even his self-destruction has a fumbling quality: when he first arrives home to the changed locks and calls into his home's intercom, his plea—"Can this happen another day?"—is heartbreaking in its attempt to stabilize his crumbling life. Despite the temptation, practically an invitation, to overact, Ferrell is funny, sad, and restrained on both counts.
The movie itself is another matter. Written and directed by first-timer Dan Rush, it has some scenes of surprising patience and insight, and others showcasing weird indie-movie ideas about the mechanics of human relationships. Take Christopher Jordan Brown as Nick's young friend: at what point did indie-minded screenwriters decide that so many kids (particularly, for some reason, black kids) affect a stoic deadpan demeanor? Brown is less monoexpressive than the worst purveyors of this new cliché, and some of his scenes with Ferrell are sweet, but they're also convenient: two lonely souls become friends with almost no effort. Convenience may also come to mind when you see the impossibly gorgeous Rebecca Hall as Nick's new neighbor across the street, who wanders over for some tentative bonding. But Hall has carved out such a simple but unusual niche playing reasonable, kind women who nonetheless circumvent love-interest blandness that she makes the relationship with Ferrell work; their moments together are some of the film's best.
Everything Must Go teeters on the edge of believability for much of its running time, balanced by Ferrell and Hall. But in its final stretch, it wobbles as Rush starts filling revelations in where the story really only needs strong, vivid details. The movie is based on or, really, elaborated from a short story by Raymond Carver, and this version lacks Carver's offhand, observant spareness. The additions are necessary for a feature, but the extra strands of melodrama at the end aren't. Carver's story ends with a character struggling to convey the beautiful sadness of a strange situation. The movie sort of does the same thing, with a smidge more desperation.
Opens May 13