Will Ferrell's face is built for comedy. His stern, preternaturally distant gaze and burly physique take on an ironic quality when pitted against the clumsy characters he does best. As a result, he always looks poised to deliver a joke. Over the years, he has channeled those intrinsic comic features into a wide range of deadpan roles, generally doing justice to the persona even when the script can't keep up. But when someone like Ferrell ventures beyond his safety zone with material that lacks punchlines, the disconnect drags him down.
"Everything Must Go" marks the latest instance of this misdirection. The story, in which a recently fired alcoholic comes home to find his wife has locked him out of the house and strewn his possessions across their lawn, sounds ready-made for gags. It's a physically offbeat scenario based almost exclusively around Ferrell's continually uneasy anti-hero, Nick. The material, however, takes a Raymond Carver short story and plays it almost too straight. Ferrell looks uncomfortable, but not amusingly so.
Following the rudimentary conventions of a midlife crisis drama, in which a man encounters regret and then finds new value in his life, "Everything Must Go" features Nick pensively sitting outdoors in his lawn chair, endlessly downing beer after beer, and grousing about his mistakes to the smallish cast of suburban characters. His pregnant neighbor (Rebecca Hall), a new arrival to the area whose husband remains elusive, initially offers her sympathies until Nick begins predicting her own marital problems. Neighborhood adolescent Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace, who previously played a young Notorious B.I.G. in the 2009 biopic) takes a fast liking to Nick, leading him to take the kid under his wing and impart his business training when the two team up to sell Nick's stuff. Meanwhile, Nick's jaded sponsor (Michael Peña) keeps nudging him to move on. Naturally, if he did that right away, "Everything Must Go" would be as short as the Carver story that inspired it.
Maybe it belongs that length. No given scene is particularly uneven or grueling to watch, but the situational backdrop has only so much momentum. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Ferrell has a net worth of $80 million, which means a story this muted simply falls below the standards expected of him. That's not to say he couldn't take on a batty character that runs counter to everything he has done before. Culture, however, expects big things of people who leave a dent in it. Adam Sandler's wonderfully unhinged dramatic turn in "Punch-Drunk Love" effectively deepened his brand (as Jim Carrey did in "Man on the Moon") but his pointless restraint in "Reign Over Me" was a waste of time. Ferrell's performance in "Everything Must Go" doesn't sink that low, as director Dan Rush guides the material with a gentle hand. It's just overwhelmingly basic, a descriptor that should never apply to a comedic beast of Ferrell's caliber.
For my money, Ferrell's best roles are not onscreen but off. Along with business partner Adam McKay, he kick-started the careers of Jody Hill and Danny McBride by promoting their initial collaboration, the great slapstick martial arts comedy "The Fist Foot Way." McKay and Ferrell also launched Funny or Die, a shrewd and appropriately merciless new tool for judging humor on the web. That project implied a certain perfectionist outlook on Ferrell's part, which may explain why he rarely stars in outright duds. If "Everything Must Go" were subjected to the new media tools that Ferrell helped create, it would die a horrible death. It's not supposed to be funny, of course, but Ferrell himself is a different story.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having generated mixed reviews since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, "Everything Must Go" will draw some curiosity from Ferrell fans before fading from view, as word-of-mouth is bound to work against its initial prospects.
criticWIRE grade: B-