On Movies: Ferrell delivers nuanced performance
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2011 - Will Ferrell, whose self-absorbed goofball act was probably the best thing about the "Saturday Night Live" of a decade or so ago, has continued to specialize in outrageous, solipsistic ineptitude as he has made a successful transition to movies. In recent Hollywood farces he plays, among other things, a bumbling TV anchorman, a bumbling cop, a bumbling basketball player-manager and a bumbling race car driver.
In his new movie, the pensive, bittersweet "Everything Must Go," Ferrell plays something new: a recognizable human being.
It's surprising -- at least it was to me -- that Will Ferrell could give such an understated, wry performance. This little gem of a movie could have been destroyed by flamboyant zaniness, which is Ferrell's shtick. Admittedly, "Everything Must Go," which is about a middle-age man whose life is coming apart, is, at times, a tad zany, but it's quietly, poignantly, believably zany, with a pervasive sense of light melancholy balancing the comedy. Ferrell gives the kind of layered performance that really should be considered when Oscar time comes around.
"Everything Must Go" is written and directed by newcomer Dan Rush, who extrapolated the script from a very spare, 1,600-word Raymond Carver short story called "Why Don't You Dance?" While the movie reveals considerably more information than the short story did, and changes at least one crucial plot element, it remains Carveresque in that it leaves much unspoken while telling an emotionally complex story.
Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, an alcoholic salesman who is hit with a rare daily double of bad news. After returning from a business trip he thinks was a success, he is fired. The reasons he is given are the usual Human Resources-department boilerplate, but it's clear that his drinking was a big part of the problem. There is also the ripped-from-the-headlines suggestion that the company was glad to be rid of a high-priced veteran when they could replace him with a cheap rookie.
Nick jams a knife into the tire of his boss' car, picks up a carton of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and drives his company car to his home in suburban Phoenix, where he finds that his wife has left him and changed the locks on the doors. Everything that she considers his, including various sports memorabilia and an imitation leather recliner that was made just for a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a ballgame, is sitting on the front lawn of his suburban house.
Pretty soon, the company repossesses its car, and Nick's main mode of transportation is a fat-tired bicycle he borrows from a kid in the neighborhood, a kid who seems as much adrift as Nick, but at least doesn't drink. (Christopher Jordan Wallace is wonderful as the young man, and the acting in this movie is generally superb.)
Slowly, helped by the neighborhood kid, his weary Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and a couple of sweet, lonely women about his age (Rebecca Hall and Laura Dern), Nick figures out ways to at least stumble forward through the fog in search of a moment of relative clarity. For starters, he turns the household litter in the front yard, stuff that symbolizes large chunks of his life, into the merchandise for a yard sale.
Much of the humor in the movie comes from Nick's exchanges with people who drop by to buy things, things Nick once thought he could not live without. He holds back on selling the recliner, though, because that's where he sleeps for the week it takes the movie to come to a resolution. (The filmmaker's choice of Phoenix as a location was not made without forethought.)
In the end, what Nick is going to do with the rest of his life remains a question -- neither Raymond Carver nor filmmaker Rush provides any easy answers. And it would be hard to say that Nick is better off without his wife and his house and his job and his scratchy collection of long-playing records. But he seems to be hanging in there, and it's hard not to hope he keeps on doing just that. Things could be worse.
Opens Friday, May 13
Where to start.
How about a comparison between "The Beaver" and "Everything Must Go"? The two movies share a theme -- a middle-age man falling apart -- and nothing else. Just about everything that's right about "Everything Must Go" -- its light touch, its skillful mixture of comedy and sadness, its believable, empathetic characters, its fine acting, even its thought provoking and meaningful title -- is wrong with "The Beaver."
Plus, of course, most of us have nothing but positive feelings toward Will Ferrell, even those of us who think he may have made a few too many formulaic fumbler farces. As for Mel Gibson, with his obsessive revenge fantasies, his racist rantings and his restraining-order inspiring treatment of women, it's hard to imagine him as the same charming man who romped through the "Lethal Weapon" movies with Danny Glover.
In this harsh melodrama, Gibson plays a toy-company executive named Walter who is so depressed he can barely dress himself. In an alley, he finds a ragged hand puppet -- the title character. He puts it on and suddenly begins to talk through it, like a ventriloquist. The hand-puppet beaver, which has the strident voice and the cocky attitude of a movie pirate, seems to represent the manic side of Walter's bi-polar condition. Walter insists that everybody deal with him through his immensely self-assured alter ego, the beaver.
For a while, the beaver helps Walter cope with -- indeed dominate -- his life, but inevitably the puppet turns on the man. "The Beaver" morphs into a kind of psychological horror movie -- remember "Magic," with Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist attacked by his own dummy? The beaver starts talking like the devil in an exorcism flick and runs amok, which is inconvenient since he is attached to Walter's arm.
"The Beaver" was directed with deeply misplaced earnestness by Jodie Foster, who also miscasts herself as Gibson's loyal wife. She seems to think she was doing her friend a favor by giving him a role as a deeply troubled but ultimately redeemable man, but she wasn't.
Opens Friday, May 13.
Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon.