Will Ferrell as Nick Halsey in "Everything Must Go." (John Estes / Roadside Attractions…)
With a bruised and nearly broken Will Ferrell in a Barcalounger presiding over a yard sale of all his worldly possessions, "Everything Must Go" is like the Raymond Carver short story it is loosely based on — a precision cut at an already small slice of life.
Years ago, Carver examined a day in four pages in "Why Don't You Dance." Dan Rush, making his feature writing/directing debut, expands the state of play by a week, adds a few characters and a back story, and creates a moving snapshot of modern-day angst.
In this low-budget, character-driven indie, Ferrell steps out of type to play Nick Halsey, a very muddled man. On the day we meet him, he's a top executive getting fired for the latest alcohol-fueled incident with a female client. After working out some of his frustration on the tires of the guy who axed him, Nick stocks up on booze and then heads to his house in the burbs, only to find the wife has left him, the locks have been changed and his stuff is on the front lawn. Life, to say the least, is a mess.
Life also won't let him alone. There's the new neighbor moving in across the street, a very pregnant fine-art photographer named Samantha (Rebecca Hall). There is a latchkey kid, Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), who's biking back and forth as he considers Nick's condition. There are the random strangers who stop by to pick through the stuff Nick is not yet ready to sell. And there's his AA sponsor, Det. Frank Garcia (Michael Peña), who buys him a few days to take his stuff and his life somewhere else before vagrancy laws kick in.
Within the casual exchanges that come from these very basic human interactions, we begin to piece together what happened to Nick. It is a tribute to the sophistication of Rush's script that Nick does too. The question is whether Nick will be able to shed his past — literally and figuratively — and if that will be enough to enable him to start a new and different life.
The test, in a sense, is the same for Ferrell. He's made a career of playing the bumbling fool failing upward in hits such as "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" and "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." But he has a worrier's face behind that rubber-band grin — it was exposed somewhat in 2006's "Stranger Than Fiction" as an ordinary guy whose fate was suddenly in the hands of Emma Thompson's novelist, who had his murder in mind. But passive, reactive worry is a different beast than active resentment and regret, which is what "Everything Must Go" demands. Ferrell finds all of that and more in his most emotionally naked performance yet (the post-party streaking scene in "Old School" notwithstanding).
He is helped by the steady hand Rush displays. The filmmaker has spent about a decade as a commercial director for high-end clients, a craft that requires 30-, 60- and 90-second sprints. He slows down for "Everything Must Go," with cinematographer Michael Barrett ("Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," "Bobby") keeping everything at the right scale — intimate without being claustrophobic.
The cast Rush has assembled around Ferrell helps as well. There are tiny gems contributed by Laura Dern as the long-lost high school crush Nick looks up, and Stephen Root as a prickly neighbor with some unusual proclivities.
More central to Nick's evolving psyche is Hall's Samantha. The British actress consistently creates thoughtful and careful characters. In Samantha, she's a bit of empathy in an unforgiving world and you can see Nick's mood shift when she's around. Peña keeps finding his way into small parts that he expands just by stepping into the frame, making Frank human in unexpected ways.
But the heart of the film hangs on the relationship between Nick and Kenny, essentially a kid who's been left to his own devices, a very nice turn by the son of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. You can see in their insolence the quiet desperation, the need for connection, the unwillingness to admit it. And the humor to be found in the fundamental ironies of life. No great epiphanies, just a few days, a little perspective, nicely told.