By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

Everything Must Go isn’t just the title of Will Ferrell’s likable new movie. It’s also his acting strategy in this minimalist, bittersweet dramedy in which he strips away all the tricks of his trade as a glorious goofball in the service of delivering a calibrated dramatic performance.

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He’s terrific. And we really shouldn’t be surprised.

After all, we got a glimpse of his ability to handle drama in his wonderfully deadpan, underplayed turn in Stranger Than Fiction.  And his range and versatility were more than established in films like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and The Producers, to say nothing of his impressive run on TV’s “Saturday Night Live.”

In Everything Must Go, which is loosely based on a short story by Raymond Carver called “Why Don’t You Dance?,” Ferrell (right) carries the modestly scaled and grounded-in-reality film as an ordinary guy whose life simply falls apart one day.

His Nick Halsey is an alcoholic who is fired from his sales executive job for falling off the proverbial wagon.  Again.

So he goes home, only to discover that his wife has left him, changed the locks on their suburban Arizona home, canceled his credit cards, shut off his cell phone, and dumped all his worldly possessions on the front lawn.

So he decides simply to live on his lawn for a stretch and, while he’s at it, to conduct a yard sale to get rid of all his stuff, (there being not much of a reason, given the precipitous drop in his overall expectations, to keep all or even any of it).

And as he lets go of his possessions, such as they are, he also arrives at a new vantage point from which he can look in a mirror and begin to rebuild a new sense of self.

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Two neighbors stop by and get to know him.  Christopher Jordan Wallace plays Kenny, a lonely and downbeat latchkey kid from the neighborhood whom Nick hires as an assistant yard-sale agent.  And Rebecca Hall is Samantha, a pregnant newlywed who has just moved in across the street in advance of her husband, who has been transferred for his job.  She can see Nick’s predicament every time she glances out the window, and Nick initiates an ever so slightly flirtatious conversation or two with her.

Nick also hears from his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, a police detective played by Michael Pena, who informs him that he can remain on his cluttered and unsightly lawn for five days, after which he’ll be carted off to jail for vagrancy.

And Nick drops in unannounced on a woman he hasn’t seen since high school, played by Laura Dern, on whom Nick had a crush quite a few years ago and whose current life also has a certain measure of disarray.

None of these relationships dulls the pain, reverses the damage, dilutes the despair, or pulls him out of his depression. But at least he’s having human contact.

Ferrell abandons the abandon in Everything Must Go, bringing subtlety and nuance to Nick, a rather passive and sometimes blunt-to-the-point-of-insensitive guy who’s actually rather well behaved when you consider the relentlessness of his beer drinking.

He knows he has screwed up his life and he’s trying to cover (that is, submerge in liquid) the obvious pain he’s in, and Ferrell conveys all that naturally, never resorting to anything even vaguely resembling comedic shtick.

Oh, don’t worry, Ferrell’s still funny when he needs to be, but not in a showy way.  He does it slyly and appropriately, without ever breaking character by contradicting Nick’s essential numbness in a chase for a laugh.  Ferrell’s willing to settle for sad, knowing smiles, and he gets his share.

First-time writer-director Dan Rush’s low-key, acutely observed piece certainly benefits from Ferrell’s involvement, both commercially and artistically.  But it also provides Ferrell with a means of reminding the world of what else he might be capable of.

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So we’ll sell 2½ stars out of 4 for the darkly humorous, delicately balanced, and serious-minded Will Ferrell vehicle, Everything Must Go.  In this case, where there’s a Will, there’s a way-to-go.