By now, we just look at Will Ferrell and get ready to laugh, but not so fast. He gives a performance that most dramatic actors could only dream of - restrained, nuanced, enormously moving – in the uneven yet finally eloquent little indie Everything Must Go.
His role as Nicholas Halsey is not the stuff of high drama; Nicholas is lost, an ordinary man whose life in a sprawling Arizona suburb finally, predictably, falls apart.
He loses his job because his drinking has spun out of control one time too many. And he goes home that day to find that his wife has left, locked him out and scattered all his stuff on the lawn - not just clothes, but a recliner, an old turntable record player, a NordicTrack. With his credit cards and bank account frozen, Nick takes up residence on the lawn. Luckily, Ferrell and writer/director Dan Rush don’t play this scenario for its whimsy.
Everything Must Go is based on a Raymond Carver story (“Why Don’t You Dance?”) and for a lengthy stretch it feels like a Carver story, which is not necessarily a good thing. A little of his excruciatingly precise minimalism goes a long way, especially on screen. For the film’s first half at least, Ferrell the only reason to watch, but that’s a very good reason. There is nothing jokey about his delivery even though he’s occasionally asked to occasionally deliver wry lines, like phoning his wife to ask, “Could we do this another day?
We learn more about Nick’s decline - how and why his six months of sobriety recently ended - as he interacts with other characters. Kenny is a lonely neighborhood kid who helps Nick with the yard sale that keeps him in beer money. Christopher Jordan Wallace (son of The Notorious B.I.G..) is terrific as Kenny, matching Ferrell’s deadpan sadness. It’s too bad the role is so obviously designed to make Nicholas seem warmer to us, as Rush expands on Carver’s story. Rebecca Hall’s character, a pregnant neighbor who has just moved in, is just as transparently a screenwriter’s clunky device.
Yet Rush gives Ferrell what he needs to make it all work. Ferrell quietly reveals the depth of Nicholas’s pain – which the character takes such care to conceal – and makes the film truly heartbreaking. Nicholas is likable, not a bad guy, just a man who has been beaten down and knows it’s his own fault. And Ferrell doesn’t ask for sympathy from the audience any more than Nicholas pities himself.
Rush, who has directed commercials, has a perfunctory style that works with this material but is nothing special. David Torn’s trite soundtrack belongs in a cheap TV movie. Yet by the end, Everything Must Go becomes so moving that you almost forget its ordinary beginning and its failings because at last you’re watching an exquisite little film.
That Ferrell pulls this off shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who saw him as a buttoned down-tax auditor in the quirky, underrated Stranger Than Fiction. And while he goes all-out for drama here, he has been relentlessly making TV appearances lately, proving he’s still one of the funniest guys around. Check out this selection of the best recent videos.
Everything Must Go will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival tonight (Wed April 27th) and opens in theaters on May 13.