Without Will Ferrell, Dan Rush’s low-key feature debut “Everything Must Go” would be a tough sit, all sad-sack self-loathing and no fun, despite the writer-director’s inspired choice to lift an idea from Raymond Carver’s snapshot-short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” about a man who attempts to restart his life by moving all his possessions outdoors for a giant yard sale. (In the movie, his wife gets the ball rolling.) And while the film is neither entertaining nor profound, Ferrell makes it watchable at least. A small distrib could make some decent green packaging the comic’s rare dramatic turn as “quirky.”

Captivated by the idea of seeing the contents of a man’s home turned out onto his front lawn, Rush creates an original scenario to explain how he got there: Once a successful salesman, Nick Porter (Ferrell) finally pushed his wife too far, and now she’s gone and changed the locks, canceled his credit cards and dumped all his earthly possessions on the stoop of their home for the neighbors to see — a gesture cosmically timed to the day his employers canned him for not being able to keep his drinking in check. (Of course, it wouldn’t be Raymond Carver without drinking.)

With his financial lines cut, Nick uses what little money he has left to buy beer, and though he never really looks drunk — not in the slurred, rock-bottom “Days of Wine and Roses” sense, at least — he is rarely seen more than arm’s reach from his 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Rush isn’t interested in petty epiphanies. Nick has been in trouble plenty of times before — when the cops come by to kick him off his lawn, it helps that his sponsor is a police detective (Michael Pena), who buys his friend five days to get his life and possessions sorted, if he’ll just pretend to be hosting a yard sale. For Rush, Nick seems to represent a worst-case glimpse of others’ future. That’s certainly the case for a pregnant young photographer named Samantha (Rebecca Hall) moving in across the street, her deadbeat husband conspicuously absent: How long till she’s dumping all his stuff on her own neatly manicured lawn?

The purgative spirit of Carver’s four-page story suggested a more interesting psychological dimension than the movie does: Why would someone spontaneously liquidate all his possessions? Director Michael Haneke followed this idea to an unsettling extreme in “The Seventh Continent,” but Rush is far gentler, treating the gesture like the sort of wakeup call you’d expect from a Cameron Crowe or Nick Hornby (an impression that seems in line with all the Bob Dylan covers on the soundtrack).

Rush never shows Nick’s wife, whom we can judge solely by her possessions — a deliberate theme of the film, since Rush clearly recognizes we are more than the sum of our possessions. Nick’s catharsis, such as he can find it, comes in letting go of all that junk: exercise equipment and kitchen appliances, useless tchotchkes and unused sporting goods, even old high-school yearbooks, reflecting an earlier, more promising vision of himself.

Once a baseball jock, Nick may not have been the most likely to succeed, but his classmates never would have guessed he’d end up here, living on his lawn. In the film’s most poignant scene, Nick looks up an old, half-forgotten high-school friend (Laura Dern) who’d scrawled a flattering note to him so many years ago, and the two stand and look at each other, realizing they’re not the same people, and this isn’t the same life. Maybe it’s time for Nick to molt, to let go off all those old, dead things.

Samantha can help. So can Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace, who holds his own opposite Ferrell), a black kid who’s always hanging around. When Nick isn’t humiliating himself out of drunkenness, he can be a pretty good guy — though Rush deserves points for resting the entire film on the shoulders of someone who isn’t inherently likable (apart from the fact that he’s played by Will Ferrell, of course).

Ferrell does a fine job navigating what, if mounted onstage or executed by a more visionary director, could have been powerful stuff (just imagine how tying it to the current foreclosure crisis might have resonated). Peppered with improvised moments and amusing behavioral details, it’s a promising glimpse of both Rush’s and Ferrell’s dramatic potential, squandered on a project that, while polished, lacks the strong, original tone of Todd Solondz, Terry Zwigoff or the other suburban-subversion pros the director clearly respects.

Everything Must Go

  • Production: A Maple Pictures (in Canada) release of a Temple Hill Entertainment production in association with CowTown Cinema Ventures, Nationlight EMG. (International sales: IM Global, Los Angeles.) Produced by Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey. Executive producers, Scott Lumpkin, Celine Rattray, Martin Bowen, Bill Hallman, Marc Erlbaum, J. Andrew Greenblatt. Co-executive producers, Peter Fruchtman, Jerry Fruchtman, Jody Simon. Directed, written by Dan Rush, based on the short story "Why Don't You Dance?" by Raymond Carver.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Michael Barrett; editor, Sandra Adair; music, David Thorn; music supervisor, Margaret Yen; production designer, Kara Lindstrom; art director, Linda Sena; set decorator, Marcia Calosio; costume designer, Mark Bridges; sound (Dolby Digital), Michael "Koffy" Koff; re-recording mixers, Mark Rozelt, Trip Brock; supervising sound editor, Brock; stunt coordinator, Todd Bryant; assistant director, Joseph McDougall II; casting, Joanna Colbert, Richard Mento. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 10, 2010. Running time; 97 MIN.
  • With: Nick Porter - Will Ferrell Kenny Loftus - Christopher Jordan Wallace Samantha - Rebecca Hall Frank Garcia - Michael Pena Delilah - Laura Dern
  • Music By: