Will Ferrell, blithe impersonator of obtuse elves, TV anchormen, and former presidents, is not the first actor one thinks of to play Nick Halsey, an alcoholic wretch on a bender, in the sober indie drama Everything Must Go. On one rock-bottom day, Nick is fired from his sales job and his wife leaves him, having first changed the locks and piled all his possessions in their suburban front yard. The sight of indoor stuff splayed outdoors may be absurd. But there is nothing at all funny about the pathetic mess Nick continues to make of his life. And Ferrell, whose vaguely uncomprehending onscreen stare usually signals amusing male cluelessness to come, upends expectations from the very first scene, as Nick sits in his car, locked in a traffic standstill and palpably unable to endure the stress without a pull on his liquor flask. With characteristic physical fearlessness, the actor becomes a downward-spiraling alcoholic. No joke.
It's a terrific performance one that's unmatched by the rest of the movie, written and directed by Dan Rush. Based on Raymond Carver's notable short story ''Why Don't You Dance?,'' Everything Must Go is a sweetened-up, padded-out scenario of hope cracking through a drunk's despair. Rush's background as a director of commercials is evident in his feature-film debut: Everything and everyone look 10 degrees softer and more composed than they need to be.
Carver's original minimalist story goes down in two gulps: The drinking guy sells his stuff to a young couple passing by. The end. Rush's adaptation skips the young couple, expands the yard sale, and adds a cop who's Nick's AA sponsor (Michael Peña). There's also: a lonely black kid who becomes Nick's protégé (Christopher Jordan Wallace); an old high school classmate (Laura Dern, in a fine, subtle, self-contained scene) who assures Nick that he really does have a heart; and a neighbor across the street (Rebecca Hall) who's pregnant. Despite Nick's worst, hurtful behavior toward her, she's willing to extend a kind of forgiveness. Ferrell, for his part, looks like he would have no problem going even deeper and darker than Rush could bear. Like Bill Murray and Greg Kinnear before him, this funnyman reveals serious acting chops. B–