Big comedy stars tend to tamp down and clam up when they go "serious" in movies, and it doesn't always work. In dramatic roles, they can get hushed and self-conscious, suppressing the instinct for frenetic, free-form riffing or goofball shtick - as if they might suddenly explode and mess the whole thing up.
It's to Will Ferrell's credit, then, and to Dan Rush, the filmmaker whose idea it was to hire him, that the actor and his character sync up perfectly in Everything Must Go. The doofus clown of Step Brothers and Talladega Nights is gone, but Nick Halsey, the Arizona sales exec who's just lost his job and been tossed out of his house by his wife - who's leaving him - still manages to crack a smile. Admittedly, he's also cracking open cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The guy's in AA, and his last six months of sobriety come to an end as his life falls apart.
Adapted from Raymond Carver's short story "Why Don't You Dance," Everything Must Go is a sharply drawn study of down-and-outness that dovetails neatly, alas, with the Great Recession fallout that's raining across the land. George Clooney's Up in the Air downsizing consultant isn't brought in to fire Ferrell's Halsey, but the same feeling that the boom times have passed, that the days of flush credit and McMansion mortgages are over, permeates the air.
And so what happens as Halsey staggers across the office parking lot, with his two allotted boxes of personal belongings, is this: He drives to a minimart, buys some booze, and returns home, where he finds his possessions - his La-Z-Boy recliner, his baseball memorabilia, his barbecue grill, his vinyl collection - strewn on the front lawn. A kid he's never seen before (Christopher Jordan Wallace, in a beautifully unself-conscious turn) rolls up and starts talking. Halsey is wary at first, and in no mood to befriend some pudgy preteen, but Kenny has issues of rejection and fear and self-doubt, too, and a bond develops.
And then the idea to have a yard sale, and get rid of all this stuff, is born.
Rebecca Hall, the English actress who plays American (in The Town, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona) with seeming ease - and with a seductively melancholy vibe - shows up as a New Yorker just moved in across the street, waiting for her husband to arrive, and for the imminent arrival of her first child. Hall's Samantha and Ferrell's character meet and talk, and as often happens with strangers, rather than with intimates, deep concerns and confessions are shared. There's an amazing scene with the two of them camped on the grass in the night, when Halsey, bitter and drunk, lashes into her, her marriage and absentee spouse.
Likewise, Ferrell brings palpable hurt and emotional confusion to an encounter with a girl he knew in high school (Laura Dern) and who he tracks down, in a moment of desperate loneliness, after riffling through his old yearbook and seeing a note she left. Rush, a commercials director making his feature debut, gets some incredible work out of Ferrell and his cast here. These scenes have a poignancy and grace that's unexpected. Poignancy, grace, Will Ferrell - see what I mean?
Everything Must Go is a small film, not the tricky Hollywood concept of his heretofore more substantial work in Stranger Than Fiction. This is an indie film with big stars - but also an indie films with big ideas about bringing real people to life.