Tears of a Clown

Comic actor Will Ferrell gets touchingly serious … but will his fans care?

Everything Must Go is benign comic Will Ferrell’s bid for respect as a serious actor. After a career dedicated to rotten movies, he seems to crave critical approval for at least trying to prove he can do something besides make dumb faces and rude noises. Unfortunately, like Jim Carrey, he faces the immaturity of an undemanding low-brow fan base that loves to see him make a fool of himself and wants nothing extra—no acting, no intelligence, nothing that (God forbid!) might be construed as good taste. If the former Saturday Night Live cast member, best known for his poisonous comedy send-ups of George Bush, aims at material with a soupcon of subtlety or insight, his fans stay away in droves. So he plunges deeper into the sinkhole of knockdown, drop-your-pants, anything-for-a-laugh comedy. Everything Must Go is the one for the Gipper—the movie in which he steps out of character for his own sake and works hard to lose Will Ferrell. The results are mixed, but I admire the guy for making an effort.

Based on a Raymond Carver short story, this debut feature by writer-director Dan Rush, who makes commercials for Dell computers, casts Ferrell as middle-aged slacker Nick Halsey, a sad-sack alcoholic salesman for whom nothing goes right. After 16 years of loyalty, his company lets him go for one drinking binge too many . When he gets home, his wife has left him, canceled his credit cards, closed his bank account, changed the locks to the house, impounded his car and dumped everything he owns on the front lawn. Eventually, threatened arrest for violating a city ordinance against littering, Nick is forced to re-think his life as he takes inventory of the junk that defines him. After running out of options (and hope) he does the only thing left to do—he has a yard sale. Everything must go.

With the help of a friendly pregnant neighbor (Rebecca Hall) and an overweight kid on a bike who watches his junk while he heads for the store to buy beer, Nick pulls himself together long enough to price-tag his worthless treasures, stop boozing, cut his losses, and survive with less weight on his shoulders—but just as many problems, since in the end, he is still broke, homeless, on foot and unemployed. He is also a new man, so unfazed by his troubles that he doesn’t even seem to mind the subplot about his wife’s affair with the local cop (Michael Peña) who is also his AA sponsor. In one extraneous scene, he looks up an old girlfriend (Laura Dern) who went to Hollywood to be an actress. Her biggest claim to fame is a TV commercial in Japan. Now she’s a matronly divorced housewife with two kids. The scene illustrates Carver’s point—that for everyone older than 40, the American Dream is merely a dark delusion.

Ferrell holds back the comic condiments long enough to paint the portrait of a man lost in low self-esteem with nice pastels of realistic restraint. But the crossroads he faces are paved with potholes: director Rush never manages the transition from literature to film; the pacing is so slow you wonder if it will ever end; I never bought the metaphor of selling old sports trophies as the convincing cinematic equivalent of unloading the past; and the message is so downbeat you don’t really much care if the guy’s world collapses or not. Still, I applaud the star, whose frantic résumé of lousy work I have never regarded as anything more than pathetic. This time, he flexes a few acting muscles that atrophied along the way to stardom, showing the kind of pain, tension and inner turmoil no Valium can numb, and giving something that actually resembles a real performance. One question remains: Can they sell it?