The buzz about Everything Must Go has largely concentrated on Will Ferrell dumping his meal ticket funnyman persona for a "serious" role in a small, independent film. And in Nick Halsey, an alcoholic, unemployed louse of a man who returns home to find his wife has moved all his belongs into the front yard and changed every lock, Ferrell has certainly found a dour and unsympathetic character to test his acting chops. You'll be hearing comparisons to Jim Carrey—who these days seems to alternate between the heavy (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Number 23) and the family comedy (Yes Man, Mr. Popper's Penguins)—as well as Robin Williams, who became the envy of all comedians when he actually won an Oscar for going serious in Good Will Hunting.
There are two problems with these easy comparisons. The first is that this isn't Ferrell's first stroll on the dramatic side. Five years ago he starred in the quickly forgotten but vastly underrated Stranger Than Fiction. And second, comparisons to Carrey and Williams are lazy and misguided. Ferrell has always been more of a deadpan genius, relying less on physical comedy and slapstick and more on fantastic timing and irreverent wit, at least on "Saturday Night Live" and in great comedies like Anchorman. That's a long way of saying that if Everything Must Go came out 20 years ago, it would have starred Bill Murray. And he probably would have done a better job than Ferrell.
Everything Must Go is loosely based on a story by Raymond Carver, who died more than 20 years ago but is still recognized as one of the great modern American short story writers. I say loosely adapted because the story, "Why Don't You Dance," is all of six pages long and includes no back story or even character names—it's essentially an absurd drunken conversation between a man selling all of his stuff and two interested buyers.
The film captures some of that tone as it introduces us to Nick getting fired from his job and returning home to find he's been evicted by his wife. Though upset, Nick doesn't seem particularly surprised by either event. We learn later that there have been accusations of alcohol-fueled workplace sexual harassment (and possibly even assault), allegations that don't bode well on either the employment or marriage fronts. Nick's natural reaction to what's fast become a not-so-good day is to avoid confronting the reality of it all. He makes himself comfortable amid all his furniture, settles in on the front lawn and begins to drink. (The film co-stars PBR.)
The film peaks in these early scenes where Ferrell is on his own, waving amicably to the disconcerted neighbors as he downs six-packs, and later chats with police officers who can't quite grasp the situation that's unfolding on this suburban Arizona lawn. Ferrell, in turn, plays if perfectly as if there is nothing out of the ordinary about a middle-age man drinking beer and sleeping on his recliner in the front yard.
Everything Must Go begins to dissolve with the arrival of each supporting actor, all of whom are slightly endearing but forgettable. The best of the bunch is 15-year-old newcomer Christopher Wallace (son of the Notorious B.I.G.), who plays Kenny, the son of a neighborhood caretaker who is enamored with Nick and his trove of discarded belongings. Nick hires Kenny to help with the yard sale, and before too long they're trading fat jokes in the pool and playing catch in yard. It's as saccharine as it sounds, but Wallace has earned himself future acting roles with a nicely subdued performance here.
Other characters are inserted in with less precision, most notably Samantha (Rebecca Hall), the new neighbor across the street, and Frank (Michael Pena), a detective and Nick's AA sponsor. Both excel in over-earnest soliloquies in which they tell Nick that he needs help, to which Nick nods and smirks with a look that says he's well aware of that fact, but he's enjoying the denial of it too much to care.
What saves Everything Must Go from all-out implosion here is that unlike other feel-good indie flicks of late, Nick is far from a sympathetic figure. As likable as he'd like to think he is, there's a very real dark side that is unnerving, and helps to keep the audience off balance. Every time you look at those puppy-dog eyes or feel a tinge of empathy for Nick's plight, there's always that moment of reminder that he doesn't deserve your compassion. Everything Must Go proves how hard it is to dislike Will Ferrell, no matter what the role.
Everything Must Go continues at the Wilma.