“Will Ferrell” has fit right into log lines. We can imagine producers dropping his name into various situations: Ferrell as a racecar driver became Talledaga Nights; Ferrell as a soccer coach, “Kicking and Screaming”; Ferrell as a buddy-cop, “The Other Guys.” Ferrell at a flea market wouldn’t be out of the question. At the first whiff of the idea, producers would begin to brainstorm gags they’d hope could string into a feature. But the salable Ferrell has met the yardsale in a different form. Imagine the actor watching the studio heads work up the idea. Bemused with the manipulation of his professional fate, he leaves the office area to head toward the studio lot, to the set they have built for his own personal yardsale. He looks through the things that supposedly represent his character, wondering what kind of man he’s become.
This scenario isn’t far from what we see in “Everything Must Go.” In this film the actor is paired with writer Raymond Carver, in Dan Rush’s adaptation of the author’s short story, “Why Don’t You Dance?” Like much of Carver, the story is spare in action and language, not everyone’s taste though most are intrigued by the author’s handling of loss as something new, unlike what we’ve all coped with. Ferrell enters the Carver milieu as Nick Halsey, who loses his job, his marriage, and his home – by way of his wife locking him out – all in the same day. After the firing, he slashes the tire of his boss with the pocketknife he received as a goodbye/thank you/please leave. The fact that it bears his name leads to trouble for Halsey and doofus irony familiar to Will. When Nick comes home, we see physical comedy a la Ferrell when Nick tries to hop his own fence and take back his car, on foot, from another driver.
But when Nick regards the home he’s locked out of, and his possessions all over the lawn, we see the actor contemplate, listening for his own reactions instead of letting the script do it for him. Nick’s taking up residence on his lawn grants Ferrell more than a fish-out-of-water scenario. He has the chance to become a stranger in his own strange land, a compatriot of Warren Schmidt and Viktor Navorski. The filmic universe is ready-made for Nick: a lonely, pregnant woman living across the street and the preteen son of a local caregiver both offer Nick companionship and means for soul searching. Plus, the story’s set in Phoenix, Arizona, a land of little rain that could house his extended stay out of doors. But the film allows Ferrell the chance work on his own, discovering nuance in the quiet out beyond Nick’s stormy mind. It’s a triumphant performance that promises much range from what seemed a one-burner hot plate of an actor.