REVIEW: Will Ferrell Flexes His Indie Muscle in Everything Must Go

Movieline Score: 8

In the first scenes of Everything Must Go, a lightly sketched study of a man stripped to his possessions, Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) loses his job and finds his home locked down and his belongings purged onto the front lawn. He's a George Jones song playing in the Arizona suburbs, under terribly sunny skies. He's also a character in a closely observed indie, where such conceits tend to form shallow puddles for splashing, rather than deep flows of feeling or tidal wave themes.

First-time writer and director Dan Rush seems aware of the generic obstacles he has set for himself, and takes a headlong run at both before clearing them in the critical moment. Rush's adaptation of "Why Don't You Dance," a 1,700-word Raymond Carver story, is both necessarily and notably liberal, with the casting of Ferrell the primary stroke of daring. Ferrell has played dramatic, fully clothed parts before, of course, winning acclaim for his role in Stranger Than Fiction and his Woody Allen stripes by appearing in Melinda and Melinda. And yet Ferrell as Nick Halsey still feels like a fresh idea, a testament to the actor's reliable but rarely tested mettle as much as his long parade of post-2006 buffoons.

Fired by his upstart boss, Nick, a salesman with an alcohol problem, returns home to find his life's acquisitions arranged on the front lawn. Having also frozen his bank account and changed the locks, his wife has fled the scene. Who is this vindictive woman? We never find out -- a fidelity to Carver's faded snapshot that strains the story beyond its already high concept. Though Nick pitches a small fit at work -- sticking his parting gift, a monogrammed Swiss Army knife, into the boss' tire -- when the damage done to his life is tallied, instead of flying apart he roots into place.

The neighbors play it cool at first, none more so than young Kenny (Christopher Wallace, son of hip-hop martyr Biggie Smalls), the son of a nurse who tends to an old lady nearby. Mrs. Cooper is the old lady's name, and like Mrs. Halsey she remains off-screen, her impending mortality one more thing Nick would rather block out. Kenny's orbit of Nick's remote planet is introduced literally: He circles Ferrell on his bike, throwing out nosy, deadpan queries. Lonely and bored while his mother is at work, Kenny attaches himself to the large man pounding Pabst in the Barcalounger, and helps settle the movie -- which Rush presents as a cloying, suburban parable -- into a more organic rhythm.

Kenny, constitutionally unfazed, helps Nick come to terms with turning what only appears to be a pop-up estate sale into the thing itself. Watching from across the road is Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a pregnant New York photographer new to the block and awaiting her husband's arrival. Next door is a stickler with a secret life played by Stephen Root, and cruising by every now and then is Nick's AA sponsor, a cop played by Michael Peña. Nick grows righteous about his small square of turf, staking it and squatting on it as if in a challenge to his neighbors, who peek out from behind curtains, guarding the pretense that their own private lives are well shaded. A tension develops between exposure and disguise; neighbors often play detective -- it's easier than actually getting involved -- and know more about you than you'd think. "I saw this coming from a mile away," Root says to Nick. "Thanks for warning me," he replies.

Nick passes a handful of days on his front lawn. Roused on the first morning by the unpleasant dispatch of the sprinkler system, by day three the sprinkler has been dismantled and Nick's cold showers are deliberate, delivered by the garden hose in an impromptu hutch at the side of the house. Human beings are marvelously, dangerously malleable. The trick is to recognize when what you're adapting to is decay. Nick never seems sadder than when he describes his privileges to Samantha, whom he chides for adapting to compromise: Employment bought his house, he and his wife traveled to Europe, Japan, and to the Caribbean -- twice. These are surely the markers of a good, happy life.

Nick begins as a rueful punch line and remains more symbol than man -- even in shadow, Carver's unnamed husband resonates more fully, a sharp outline with room for the reader's colorings. But an encounter with a high school acquaintance named Delilah (a lovely cameo by Laura Dern) is more revealing than Rush's other embellishments, including a hazy accusation of rape and a late-game betrayal. Nick appears on her doorstep, reaching for what the bewildered Delilah quickly articulates as a glimpse of his former self. "You have a good heart," she says. "That doesn't change." It's trite but essential, and Nick's response is anger; a near stranger has reminded him of something that he's forgotten but knows to be true. It's a perfect expression of inertia and its costs, and a moment that encapsulates the best of what this patent but often tender take on a familiar scenario has to offer.