The unlikely combination of funnyman Will Ferrell and the boozy "dirty realism" of the great short story writer Raymond Carver pays off beautifully in "Everything Must Go," a sardonic look at hitting bottom before you can start the climb back up. Ferrell perfectly underplays his Carver anti-hero and delivers a rich, layered and subtle performance.
And a funny one. Maybe it's the baggage the once and future "Anchor Man" brings to the party, but Nick - his melancholy drunk caught in the midst of a downward spiral - is a sad, broken man who still gives us permission to laugh at him.
We meet Nick on what we assume, at least, is the worst day of his life. He's sitting in his car, draining a flask. He's stopping at convenience stores, picking up 12-packs of Pabst. He's been fired. And then he gets home.
No wife, waiting to greet him. No door, opening into his sanctuary where he can curl up, get drunk and feel sorry for himself. The locks have been changed. Everything he owns is on the lawn - from his clothes and golf clubs to his George Foreman Grill, his easy chair, every sports trophy, LP and tiki torch he's ever bought. The detritus of his life is there for the whole city of Scottsdale to see.
"Can't this happen another day?" he pleads, leaving a message on the wife's voice mail.
Nope. It's all crashing down right here, right now - his alcoholism, his shattered career, his ruined marriage. Before the afternoon is over, we've flashed back to that firing, we've seen his company car repossessed, grimaced at the unseen wife's "hold" on their joint accounts. Nick has no cash, no car, no home and nobody to help him cope. Save for Mr. Pabst and his Blue Ribbon brew.
Writer-director Dan Rush keeps Ferrell on slow burn, for the most part. We know he'll blow, and more than once, probably. But he keeps us waiting.
Nick, a vice president in charge of sales at an office-supply firm, is great at reading people. Soon he's sadly sizing up the pregnant new neighbor (Rebecca Hall from "The Town"), and fending off the neediness of Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace of "Notorious"), a plump kid who might help Nick get his junk packed up, IF Nick will teach him how to play baseball.
Rush and Ferrell conspire to bring us scenes of goofy whimsy - Nick's efforts to keep the sprinklers from ruining his things - and aching heartbreak.
At some point, Nick will have to get off that lawn. In some way, he's got to start from scratch. And as he drinks and copes, hour to hour, we wonder if Nick will give up, if he'll have that one last shock that will send him into the abyss. Or will a yard sale be his salvation?
"You know you need some help," he's told.
"I tried help," he shoots back.
"Everything Must Go" is a prime example of why one should, when attempting a literary screen adaptation, work from a short story and not a novel. It's full of slices of life that were added to Carver's slim but poignant and biting tale. Those slices adorn pithy, pointed moments and life lessons, the best of them provided by a high school classmate of Nick's (Laura Dern).
"The good without the bad ain't no good at all."
This is Ferrell's best work in ages and his best choice, as an actor, since "Stranger than Fiction." In "Everything Must Go," Nick has to shed the trappings of his life to see if it's worth starting over. And in making it, Ferrell strips away his standard shtick and shows us a glimpse of the big, vulnerable human being behind those hilarious, broad characters he often hides behind.
Everything must go
• Rated: R for language and some sexual content.
• Director: Dan Rush.
• Cast: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Stephen Root, Michael Pena, Laura Dern.
• Running time: 96 minutes.