Movies

Could Will Ferrell Make You Cry?

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The comedian plays it straight in a new adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.

By Andrew Osborne

Raymond Carver was an acclaimed American short-story writer who focused on the lives of marginalized everymen trapped in lives of quiet desperation. Will Ferrell is an A-list comedian who likes flashing his hairy belly. A perfect match, right? That's the theory behind Everything Must Go, director Dan Rush's adaptation of Carver's short story "Why Don't You Dance?" starring Ferrell as a Nick Halsey, a middle-aged alcoholic who loses his job, then comes home to discover his wife has kicked him out of the house and thrown all his stuff on the lawn. With no particular place to go, Halsey holds an impromptu yard sale, unloading his material possessions (and, possibly, his emotional baggage as well). For Carver fans (or Ferrell fans, for that matter), the casting might seem like sacrilege, and yet it just might work.

Carver's been adapted several times before. For one example, nine other Carver stories (and a poem) inspired Robert Altman's Short Cuts, a 1993 ensemble piece featuring respected acclaimed dramatic actors like Robert Downey, Jr. and Julianne Moore). And when you think about it, given that Downey was once a cast member on Saturday Night Live and Moore was allowed to mangle a Boston accent for the sake of comedy on 30 Rock, it seems only fair that Ferrell should be able to leave his comfort zone for a stab at drama. After all, the "Sad Clown Syndrome" has allowed numerous jesters like Jerry Lewis and Robin Williams to succeed in dramatic roles by tapping into the anger and sadness that fuels their humor. Unfortunately, flipping the mask from comedy to tragedy can also lead to maudlin disasters like Williams' Patch Adams or Lewis' infamous concentration-camp caper, The Day The Clown Cried.

Ferrell's previous forays into more dramatic material (notably Melinda and Melinda and Stranger Than Fiction) have been inconclusive as to the extent of his range. He seems less engaged with the "serious" world than he does in his live-wire comic roles, and there's a lurking sense that even his moments of sincerity are just as much of a put-on as his parodies. On the other hand, while his inner life comes across as somewhat shielded, Ferrell also seems to lack the neediness that can push seriocomic actors like Williams into icky melodrama. And the sense that Ferrell's more realistic characters are watching the world from behind a mask, hiding (or even unaware of) their true feelings may actually benefit his portrayal of an emotionally burned-out character like Nick Halsey. His enigmatic blankness may be a good match for Carver's minimalist style.

While he may never fully abandon his comedy roots for Hanks-ian acting credibility, Everything Must Go seems like another interesting step in Ferrell's efforts to establish a niche for himself in more serious projects. And given his particular strengths as a performer, I hope the next Raymond he tackles will be Chandler, since — like Steve Martin (in The Spanish Prisoner mode) and Fred MacMurray before him — the cool, detached nihilism of film noir may be the perfect dramatic Yin to balance his antic Yang.