By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
At some point in every movie comedian's career, being funny isn't enough. What they really want is to be taken seriously as actors, to don that tragedy mask for a change. For every Robin Williams who can make it work, there's an Adam Sandler slinking back punch-drunk to comedy where it's safe.
Everything Must Go is a wry, melancholy movie offering Will Ferrell his shot at thespian respect. It's a smart, modest choice without those showy emotional moments — well, there's one unconvincing cry — comedians typically feel are necessary and can't pull off. In fact, Ferrell doesn't do anything much differently than usual, but downbeat material also suits his deadpan style.
He plays Nick Halsey, whom we meet on the worst day of his life. Nick has been fired from his corporate sales job for a series of incidents sparked by alcoholism he swears is under control. The flask he's despondently sipping from in the parking lot suggests otherwise. Picking up a case of beer on the way home proves it. Nick soon has plenty to drink about.
Arriving at his suburban home, Nick discovers his wife is gone, the locks are changed and all his personal possessions are strewn across the front yard. Clothes, collectibles, vinyl records, kayaks, exercise machines, everything. Nick's entire life, and it's literally a mess. He passes out in his favorite recliner, awakening to glares from neighbors who don't appreciate the eyesore.
Someone calls the police, who bring in Nick's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, detective Frank Garcia (Michael Peña). Frank is disappointed but patient, obtaining a garage sale permit and giving Nick a few days to clean up and clear out. Over that grace period Nick comes to terms with himself, aided by two strangers viewing him as a tragic curiosity.
Samantha (Rebecca Hall) just moved in across the street, pregnant and sent in advance by her husband, who's traveling for work. She brings out Nick's gentlest instincts, which are still rather prickly. Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) is a shy kid in the neighborhood who is so desperate for attention that Nick's brusque manner counts. He'll help Nick rearrange his lawn-life, shedding material possessions that don't matter anymore, on the way to a fresh start.
Everything Must Go sounds touchy-feely, but writer-director Dan Rush, inspired by a Raymond Carver short story, sets a darkly serious tone that seldom wavers. Ferrell gives himself over to the vibe, creating a character both pitiful and redeemable with the subtlest acting choices. It's a very good performance that isn't for the Talladega Nights crowd and indie audiences can appreciate that.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.