Movie Review

Everything Must Go

In a serious role, Ferrell could use a little boldness

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 13, 2011

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In “Everything Must Go,’’ Will Ferrell signals he’s giving a dramatic performance by limiting himself to one facial expression and rarely lifting his voice above a standing crouch. Serious business. He’s playing a loser, Nick Halsey, whose alcoholism has cost him his sales job and his wife on the same day, but because Ferrell has become a very rich man playing comical screw-ups — big, flabby blowhards who barge into things — you keep finding reasons to snicker. It’s as if the class clown had decided to read us his love poetry.

Unfair? Maybe, but “Everything Must Go’’ makes it hard for its star to try a changeup. A minor-key suburban parable based (very loosely) on a Raymond Carver short story, Dan Rush’s debut film is sweet but slack, despite having a nearly foolproof setup. Nick returns home after being let go at work to find the locks changed, his wife gone, and every one of his belongings laid out on the front yard. Soon his cellphone and car, both corporate property, have been repossessed. Within a matter of hours, he has ceased to exist as a functioning member of society.

Worse, Nick’s shame is there for all to see, right out on the front lawn. His response is to hunker down in the La-Z-Boy, start drinking early and often, and hold a sort of existential yard sale. His neighbor (Stephen Root) is appalled, his AA sponsor (Michael Peña) despondent. The pregnant newlywed (Rebecca Hall) who just moved in across the street is merely nonplussed. “I’m no different than any of you,’’ Nick tells her as he sucks down his eighth beer. “I just don’t hide in my house.’’

“Everything Must Go’’ takes place over five days that chart the ebb and flow of its hero’s misfortunes. There’s a deadpan young black kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace) who becomes Nick’s best salesman and protector. There’s a visit to a high school acquaintance (Laura Dern) bearing up under her own disappointments. The pregnant newlywed has problems, too, since her unseen husband is resisting relocation, and right there the movie lost me, because what man in his right mind abandons Rebecca Hall?

The attention to detail in that driveway is satisfyingly precise, though. Nick’s bric-a-brac reflects all the things we collect and try to call a life: saxophones and foosball tables, exercisers and stuffed coyotes, trophies and Viewmasters and a baseball signed by the ’78 Yankees. The impulse to give it all away — sell everything, become nothing, be reborn — is both noble and suicidal, but the star fails to convince us of either extreme. Just because Nick’s a little man doesn’t mean this has to be a little performance, but that, sadly, is what we get from Ferrell.

A comparison to Carver’s original story — called “Why Don’t You Dance?,’’ easily Googleable, and all of 1,600 words long — is instructive. Without mentioning the main character’s marital problems or even giving him a name, Carver zeroes in on a bleakness, and a comfort with that bleakness, that’s mysterious and profound. “Everything Must Go’’ tells us much more and gives us much less: backstory, sentiment, closure. It lives up to its title in ways its maker never intended.

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Directed by: Dan Rush

Written by: Rush, based on a short story by Raymond Carver

Starring: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Laura Dern, Michael Peña, Christopher Jordan Wallace

At: Boston Common, Kendall Square

Running time: 96 minutes

Rated: R (language and some sexual content)

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