Will Ferrell has deviated from his comic persona from time to time, giving more dramatic performances in movies like "Stranger Than Fiction." But no film has asked him to delve into the kinds of deep, dark places required of him in "Everything Must Go." And he more than rises to the challenge.
Ferrell's stripped-down presence is a thing of elegant melancholy - even when his character is at his ugliest and worst. He never seems to judge the man he's playing, Nick Halsey, who thinks he's hit bottom but then finds he can continue falling. Rather, he just becomes this person in small, quiet ways.
And in the hands of first-time writer-director Dan Rush, based on a Raymond Carver short story, "Everything Must Go" is a small, quiet movie. It may feel a bit too languid at times, but the pacing also allows time for us to ruminate alongside Nick, to take it all in - for better and for worse.
When we first meet Nick, he's being fired from his job as a longtime salesman. He peaked professionally a while ago, he clearly has a drinking problem, and there are vague rumblings about a messy incident during a work trip to Denver.
After a quick and impetuous bout of vandalism in the parking lot, he arrives at his suburban Phoenix home to find his wife has left him, changed the locks and alarm codes, and scattered his belongings on the front lawn.
Rather than panic, he scrapes together the little money he has left and heads to the convenience store for some Pabst Blue Ribbon, his drink of choice. (Surely this isn't the kind of high-profile product placement that inspired Morgan Spurlock's recent documentary.)
He then proceeds to rearrange the furniture as if it were still sitting in his living room, plop down in his recliner and get hammered. For several days straight. One thing "Everything Must Go" really gets right is the day-in, day-out of life as a functioning alcoholic: the shakes in the morning, the resourceful means of finding a drink however you must as the day drags on.
Perhaps it's a bit of an obvious metaphor that Nick is awakened bright and early each day by cold, insistent splashes of water from the sprinklers, but hey - that's what happens when you pass out in the front yard. He also has an awakening of sorts in the form of two new and unlikely friendships.
One is with Samantha (a lovely Rebecca Hall), the married, pregnant photographer who's just moved by herself into the generic tract house across the street. Her husband is still working temporarily in New York, but her relationship with Nick doesn't venture in any of the conventional directions you might expect.
The other is with Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace, who played his father, the late rapper Notorious B.I.G., as a child in "Notorious"), a bored neighborhood kid who aimlessly rides his bike up and down the street. Kenny becomes Nick's daily companion, and then his business partner, helping sell off the exercise equipment, lamps, samurai swords and other knickknacks that seemed so essential for so long.
Theirs becomes a makeshift yet effortless father-son relationship. But like the bond Nick forges with Samantha, it doesn't go into any obviously mawkish places. These people - as well as Laura Dern in a startlingly poignant turn in one scene as an old high school classmate - help Nick emerge from his fog. And only then do glimmers of the Ferrell we've known and loved all these years come shining through.
"Everything Must Go" ends on a vague note of uplift, but that's actually preferable to being sold a fake version of happily-ever-after.
"Everything Must Go," a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R for language and some sexual content. Running time: 96 minutes. Three stars out of four.