For a film about one man's descent into alcoholism and semi-homelessness, Everything Must Go (Roadside Attractions) feels surprisingly jaunty. Perhaps that's because this wisp of an indie, written and directed by first-time filmmaker Dan Rush from a short story by Raymond Carver, stars Will Ferrell, a comedian who specializes in seeming at once wistful and indestructible. Like Frank the Tank, Ferrell's hard-partying character in the curiously memorable comedy Old School, this film's sort-of-hero, Nick Halsey, dimly intuits that he's responsible for his own unhappiness and that it's in his power to change. He just needs to sit down and have a couple beers while he thinks the whole thing through.
In the first scene, Nick loses his job as a salesman, thanks to a chronic drinking problem and a nebulous sexual-harassment claim by a colleague. Driving home from work with a flask in his hand, he discovers that his wife has just left him, changed all the locks on their house, and dragged his belongings onto the front lawn. Nick's response to the sudden obliteration of his entire life is to put off responding: He simply plops down in his favorite recliner, busts out a 12-pack, and spends the night in the yard. For the next several days, there he sits amid his crates of LPs and baseball memorabilia, refusing to budge even when his AA sponsor, a cop (Michael Peña), threatens to have him arrested. Eventually the cop grants Nick three days to sell off everything in his yard.
In traditional indie fashion, various oddballs cross Nick's path: a pregnant photographer (Rebecca Hall) has just moved in across the street and is awaiting her husband's arrival, while a lonely, chubby kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of the late rapper Biggie Smalls) spends his days cruising up and down the street on his bike. Nick promptly connects with and then alienates both of them, showing us how easy it must have been for this man to arrive at the nadir he's reached. Leafing through a pile of high-school yearbooks, Nick is inspired to visit an old classmate (impeccably played by Laura Dern), who responds to his clumsy overtures first with warmth, then puzzlement.
If these developments sound slight and meandering, so is the movie. Everything Must Go has a spacious, under-inhabited feeling; the Carver story it's based on is only four pages long, and there's a fair bit of narrative vamping to fill an hour and a half of screen time. But that spaciousness gives Ferrell room to create his character from the ground up. By the end, we know the self-defeating, sentimental, stubborn Nick Halsey very well, and we're really rooting for him to get himself and his junk off the lawn. The redemptive ending feels a little too quickly earned, and there's a late plot twist involving the cop friend that's both implausible and unnecessary. But Ferrell's performance, particularly in his scenes with the soulful young Wallace, augurs well for his future as a more-than-comic actor. This isn't Ferrell's first dramatic role; he played seriocomic leading men in Stranger Than Fictionand Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda. But it's the first one that provides a glimpse at his possible future as a Bill Murray-style character actor, a funny man with deep reserves of sadness at his disposal.