There comes a time in every comic actor’s life when they grow weary of begging for yuks, and try to prove that they’ve got dramatic chops too. It’s a rite of passage as inevitable as puberty, and often just as embarrassing and uncomfortable. Some have proven rather adept at the transition from comedy to drama: Adam Sandler in the gorgeous Punch Drunk Love, Bill Murray in everything post-Rushmore, Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Mo’Nique in Precious (a performance I didn’t personally like, but they gave her an Oscar for it, so what do I know) and of course, title holder Jim Carrey with the double-punch of The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When it works, it works well; a comic’s expert understanding of timing can often elevate a role. When it doesn’t work – oh boy – we are forced to endure some truly unnerving, sad-clown muggery (Patch Adams, The Majestic, Reign Over Me, Seven Pounds … I … I can’t go on).
Will Ferrell – he of Anchorman and Saturday Night Live and being frequently shirtless fame – is not exempt from this tradition. He’s popped up in a few dramas over the years (Melinda and Melinda, Stranger than Fiction), but despite his perfectly fine performances, none have set the world on fire. He tries his hand at playing it straight once again in Dan Rash’s Everything Must Go, a sombre film that is only sporadically funny (and only because the naturally hilarious Ferrell can evoke a chuckle even with the flattest dialogue).
Ferrell stars as Nick Halsey, a highly-paid salesman who is fired from his job and is kicked out of home on the same day. Although his life has crumbled around him, it comes as no real surprise; we later learn that the alcoholic and self-destructive Nick has been orchestrating his demise for a while now. Locked out of his home, his belongings are scattered across the front lawn. His cop buddy Frank (Michael Pena) advises him to hold a five-day yard sale (it’s the only way to keep from being charged with trespassing). So begins a self-cleansing, deconstruction ritual for Nick, as he sells off all his Earthly belongings – with the help of neighbourhood kid Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) – and sparks a friendship with new neighbour Samantha (Rebecca Hall).
Let it be said that Everything Must Go will not join the ranks of Patch Adams et al; Ferrell is too good and nicely understated here to be lumped in with the rest of those misfires. The supporting cast – Pena, Wallace, Hall, and best of all, Laura Dern as a high school acquaintance of Nick – are also excellent. And although the film – adapted by Rash from the short story ‘Why Don’t You Dance’ by Raymond Carver – may achieve all it aspires to, it doesn’t aspire to a whole lot. It can’t escape the crippling clichés of similar films that have come before it, and there are far too many Cameron Crowe-ian platitudes littered throughout the screenplay to remind us that we are indeed watching a movie. Example: “What’s normal?” Nick boringly asks Samantha after she tells him it’s not normal to live on your lawn.
Everything Must Go arrives on DVD and Blu-ray October 5, 2011.