In Everything Must Go, Will Ferrell inhabits Raymond Carver country with surprising ease 

A Small Good Thing

A Small Good Thing

Oh, that I could have watched Will Ferrell's new movie in a vacuum, where his impish smirk would not have immediately called to mind the image of him streaking down a suburban street — or praying to "tiny infant Jesus," or demanding that his children get off the shed, lest he downsize their face with a shovel. You see, Everything Must Go is quite good, and at times very funny. But so familiar is his non-sequitur-spewing man-child persona that Ferrell's more subtle incarnation here is somewhat disorienting.

Then again, that proves to be one of the film's greatest tools. Ferrell's comedies have often required that his characters hit the skids, but usually as the trumped-up means to a hysterical (and quotable) happy end. Here, though the means are similar, the end is something more sincere. Every time Ferrell's protagonist stops short of the cathartic freak-out we've been conditioned to expect, it underscores the seriousness of his predicament.

Written and directed by Dan Rush, Everything Must Go was adapted from Raymond Carver's short story "Why Don't You Dance," and it retains some of the source's hard, cutting spareness. Although it serves as Rush's directorial debut in features, his previous work directing commercials makes him uniquely prepared to handle the trademark brevity of Carver's work. The combination of Carver's minimalism and Ferrell's extroverted maximalism may sound like a disaster — a moose in an earthenware shop — but it brings unexpectedly vital results.

Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a relapsed alcoholic who loses his job and his wife in the same day. We gather that his troubles with the bottle (well, the can) led to both, and when he comes home to find everything he owns on the front lawn, he dives headfirst off the wagon. Ferrell goes through so many beers, in fact, that you might be turned off by the Morgan Spurlock-level product placement, if it were advertising anything less prosaic than the indie-approved, union-made Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boy. (I'm not sure a guy like Halsey would drink PBR, but it's forgivable.)

In the heavily populated frat-pack romps Ferrell is best known for, relationships are generally only as important as the hilarity they can produce — and most times, the ensemble horseplay has made up for the lack of multidimensional performances. But in Everything Must Go, fewer characters are mined for more. As a neighbor kid whom Halsey enlists when his life essentially becomes a giant yard sale, Christopher Jordan Wallace displays a confidence that could have been passed down from his father, Chris Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G. Even the characters who get less screen time, including Michael Peña and a pivotal Laura Dern, command more consideration than the second bananas who typically orbit the star.

Yet it is another understated performance from Rebecca Hall, as a new neighbor, Samantha, with secrets of her own, that yields the most. Ferrell's balanced self-control in the lead role is impressive, as he neither winks out from behind the character's morose despair nor makes a bid for sad-clown pity. (That flash of childish anger in Ferrell's other movies? Not so funny here.) But that may be because Hall gives him a boundary line that keeps him on the reservation — a benchmark of precisely pitched behavioral observation.

There are issues in most middle-class homes, the movie says, that gates and facades keep from spilling onto the front lawn. Will Ferrell's comedy always seems to hold such an id at bay — barely — and that makes him a strikingly apt resident of Carver's seething suburbia. "I'm no different from any of you," Halsey tells Samantha. "I just don't hide in my house." Only here, the tension of the moment, which might usually be relieved by bellowed absurdities or spontaneous male nudity, is not dismissed — as if to say, "You're not getting out of this one." In these moments, Everything Must Go is a bit like sitting down with your loudest, funniest friend, and being caught off guard when he starts to tear up.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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