Oh, that I could have watched Will Ferrell's new movie in a vacuum, where his impish smirk wouldn't have immediately called to mind the image of him streaking down a suburban street. Or praying to "tiny infant Jesus." Or demanding that his children get off the shed, lest he downsize their faces with a shovel. You see, Everything Must Go is quite good and, at times, very funny. But so familiar is his non-sequitur-spewing, man-child persona that Ferrell's more subtle incarnation here is somewhat disorienting.
But that proves to be one of the film's greatest tools. Ferrell's comedies have often required that his characters hit the skids, but usually as the trumped-up means to a hysterical happy end. Though the means here are similar, the end is more sincere. Ferrell's protagonist stops short of the cathartic freakout that we've been conditioned to expect, which underscores the seriousness of his predicament.
Written and directed by Dan Rush, Everything Must Go was adapted from Raymond Carver's short story "Why Don't You Dance," and it retains some of the source's hard, cutting spareness. Rush's previous work directing commercials has prepared him for the trademark brevity of Carver's work. The combination of minimalist Carver and extroverted, maximalist Ferrell may sound like a disaster but it brings unexpectedly vital results.
Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a relapsed alcoholic who loses his job and his wife in the same day. We gather that his troubles with the bottle (well, the can) led to both. And when he comes home to find everything he owns on the front lawn, he dives headfirst off the wagon. He goes through so many beers, you'd be turned off by the Morgan Spurlock-level product placement if it were anything less prosaic than the indie-approved, union-made PBR tallboy.
In the heavily populated frat-pack romps that Ferrell is best known for, the ensemble horseplay has made up for the lack of multidimensional performances. But in Everything Must Go, fewer characters are mined for more.
As a neighbor kid, Christopher Jordan Wallace displays a confidence that could have been passed down from his father, Chris Wallace (aka Notorious B.I.G.). Even the actors who get less screen time (Michael Peña and a pivotal Laura Dern) command more consideration than the second bananas who typically orbit the star.
Yet it is an understated performance from Rebecca Hall, as new neighbor Samantha, that yields the most. Ferrell's balanced self-control in the lead role is impressive, as he neither winks out from behind the character's morose despair nor makes a bid for sad-clown pity. That may be because Hall gives him a boundary line that keeps him on the reservation.
Most middle-class homes have issues, the movie says, with gates and facades that keep them from spilling onto the front lawn. Ferrell's comedy always holds them at bay, making him an apt resident of Carver's seething suburbia.
"I'm no different from any of you," Halsey tells Samantha. "I just don't hide in my house." The tension is not dismissed. In these moments, Everything Must Go is a bit like sitting down with your loudest, funniest friend, and being caught off-guard when he starts to tear up.