One need only look at the yearly list of Oscar nominees for acting to see that the Academy doesn't consider comedy to be real acting, ignoring the fact that comedy is insanely difficult to pull off. If you need proof beyond the quote "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," try getting on-stage at a stand-up open mic. Humility and a newfound respect for people who get laughs will come swiftly with crushing, mortifying force.
Will Ferrell is arguably the world's most successful comedic actor. Yet despite an enviable box office record indicating his talents in a notoriously difficult genre, Ferrell won't be considered much more than a profitable clown until he starts landing the kind of dramatic roles that would put him in the company of people like Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey and Robin Williams.
That seems to be the aim of the dramedy Everything Must Go, where Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a salesman struggling with alcoholism who, after getting fired for drunken behavior, returns to his Phoenix, Arizona, home to find the locks on his house changed, his possessions dumped on the lawn and a note from his wife saying their marriage is over. With no car, his bank account frozen and nowhere to go, Nick decides to live on his lawn with his stuff before eventually making the decision to sell everything he owns. Nick is helped by Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a neighborhood boy with nothing better to do who takes to Nick's lessons in salesmanship, while Nick watches and is watched by Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a pregnant newcomer to the neighborhood who seems to embody the optimism and idyllic suburban life Nick couldn't maintain. Watch the trailer for Everything Must Go below.
While watching Everything Must Go, I kept thinking that it was exactly the type of role you would've seen Tom Hanks doing 20 years ago or Jim Carrey 10 years ago as they began their transitions to "serious" acting. With the film's small budget and intimate story, Everything Must Go is a smart choice for Ferrell, allowing him to flex a full range of dramatic muscles (since he's in virtually every scene) without risking the money or reputations of too many people. At the same time, I kept thinking that Everything Must Go would be a hard sell with audiences, as fans of Ferrell's raunchy comedies are put off by the film's more serious tone while drama lovers warily keep their distance.
That would be a shame since there's a lot to like in this small, thoughtful movie that chooses a slow burn over big explosives. Instead of the drunken disasters we see from many movie alcoholics -- full of car crashes, gross negligence/endangerment and violence -- we see Nick as a regular guy fighting a slow battle of attrition with alcohol, caught in the vicious circle of drinking causing problems at work and home causing more drinking, etc. Instead of Herculean swigs of liquor, Nick uses his dwindling funds on cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon, trying to keep enough of a buzz going to deaden the pain of his predicament until he eventually falls asleep.
Normally, moving is an activity filled with nostalgia as we look at objects from our past, relive the memories associated with them and decide whether they should move on with us to the next phase of our lives. But what if a forced move made you realize that your past had been so thoroughly obliterated by the present that there was no point bringing it with you into the future? While many films would treat this situation as the starting point of a bigger adventure and zoom through Nick getting rid of his stuff in a quick montage, Everything Must Go lingers in this moment so we can watch as Nick slowly grapples with the fact that he has hit rock bottom, the Five Stages of Grief playing subtly across Ferrell's everyman face and through his interactions with Kenny, Samantha and Nick's AA sponsor, Frank (Michael Peña).
Everything Must Go won't do for Ferrell what Philadelphia did for Hanks. However, it may be more like Punchline, the 1988 film about stand-up comics where Hanks surprised viewers by showing that he could play a frenetic funnyman as well as the tortured soul that fueled his humor. While the laughs in Everything Must Go are more subtle, Ferrell ably demonstrates that he can do much more than his go-to persona of the arrogant buffoon that we've seen in Anchorman, Talladega Nights and his impression of George W. Bush. While Ferrell has brought us a lot of joy with his wacky caricatures, Everything Must Go shows that Ferrell, like Nick, is ready to move on -- thankfully, with someplace promising to go.
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