This is the comedy superstar by way of Bill Murray in Lost In Translation, and even if the film has failed to connect to a similar-sized audience, state-side, to the one who flocked to see that Tokyo-set May to December romance, Ferrell’s second foray into (semi)serious territory (following 2005’s Stranger Than Fiction) delivers his strongest performance to date, and one of the year’s very best films.
Ferrell is Nick Halsey, a veteran salesman who is let go at the start of the film, owing in part, to the problems his drinking has caused for the company he’s been gainfully employed (and indulged) by for many years. He returns home (having used his farewell gift of a penknife in a funny scene of desperate retribution) to discover that not only has his alcohol-dependent spouse left him, she’s also changed the locks to the garage and house, and to add further insult to injury, has dumped all his belongings out on the front lawn in full view of everyone. It’s safe to say Nick isn’t having the best of days and things get progressively worse as his company car is quickly repossessed and he finds the funds from the couple’s joint bank account have been made unavailable to him.
Turning the lawn into a lazy extension of a living room (he sleeps on a big leather recliner and manages to blag an extension lead from next door to power his mini fridge) his decidedly leftfield living arrangement arouses the curiosity of two locals. The first of those is a new neighbour from across the road (Rebecca Hall). Heavily pregnant and awaiting the arrival of her husband, she sees beyond the shell of man in front of her and responds to his genuine honesty and innate sadness. The other is a teenager played by Christopher Jordan Wallace (Biggie’s son no less!) whom Nick employs to watch over his stuff, and who ends up serving as a confident and friend to the homeless one, asking only for the statutory seven dollars an hour pay scale and baseball lessons in return for his assistance.
From the film’s set up it’s easy to see, in lesser hands, how all this could tip into self-indulgent, whimsical indie territory (and Nick’s cleansing yard sale towards the end certainly strays dangerously close to that) but first time director Dan Rush knows how to downplay to broader aspects of the story and he constantly hits the right emotional beats without things ever getting too cloying and mawkish. It’s a leisurely told character study which shares a commonality with the works of Tom McCarthy, and is so laidback, it can get away with a scene where Nick pops in on an old high-school friend (Laura Dern) in a moment of nostalgic clarity and longing, without it ever slowing down the narrative drive or feeling extraneous to the plot.
Above all, the film acts as a fine showcase for the previously untapped skills of its lead. Ferrell manages to elicit sympathy and understanding of this flawed character without ever pandering to the audience, remaining highly watchable throughout and never once resorting to his usual comedic mannerisms for effect. The strong and subtle writing from director Rush is also a big plus, and it’s nice to witness the layers of Ferrell’s character coming through as he and his new buddy trawl through the possessions he owns.
He also benefits from working with a strong supporting cast, and the film offers yet another solid turn by Hall (her resume is undoubtedly the envy of many Hollywood starlets out there) and Wallace joins the likes of Win Win’s Alex Shaffer and Elle Fanning as yet another teen star from 2011 who delivers a completely natural and unaffected turn.
It’s perhaps easy to see why the film hasn’t struck a chord with Ferrell’s usual fanbase in the US, but that really doesn’t matter (as the actor himself would probably concur). If you’re interested in seeing a seasoned comedy star stepping out of his comfort zone and delivering a nuanced and completely heartfelt performance, you’ll be thoroughly satisfied with what’s on offer here.
It’s unlikely the film will cause Ferrell to abandon that broader material which has rooted him amongst the Hollywood A-list, nor will it result in him adopting a ‘one for me, one for the studio’ philosophy, but let’s hope he has something on the horizon which will once again test his mettle as a performer. On the basis of Everything Must Go, it’s a thrilling sight.