In his second dramatic role, Will Ferrell plays a man struggling with alcoholism. Perhaps, says Kimberly Gadette, Ferrell's struggle may have been more compelling if the film itself had struggled to convey a greater significance.
The film opens with a man (Will Ferrell's Nick) dressed in a suit and tie, sitting behind the wheel of his parked car, a voiceover running in his head about the art of the sale. It seems to be the litany of the salesman's credo: "Know your customers." "Go the extra yard." It appears that he's rehearsing, reviewing his technique before going in to some client's office to win him over. This scene is juxtaposed against a second one in which Nick is being fired by his much younger boss for sporadic drunken behavior over the last 16 years. What happened when? What's going on?
The set-up turns out to be nothing but a cheap trick, meant to draw us in. When a certain prop is ultimately revealed on camera, in the car, we understand that Nick had been fired first. Ergo, the rehearsed voiceover litany makes very little sense. While it's possible that writer/director Dan Rush was attempting irony -- having Nick review all the things he'd learned over the course of his sales career before bidding all of it a final goodbye -- that's forcing quite an interpretative stretch.
This opening exercise is representative of the movie's bigger sin of creating much ado about nothing. Which extends to the casting as well. Why bring in Stephen Root if he gets all of two lines? Why make a big deal out of Nick's visiting an old acquaintance from high school (Laura Dern's Delilah) if we're going to be presented with one halting scene?
It's as if Raymond Carver's 1600-word story, all of four pages, had infected the production. While Carver is a minimalist, we'll need a little something more for a 96-minute film. Tell you what: leave the theater, go to the bar across the street, have a cold one – nod to Nick if you see him – and then make your way back inside. What did you miss? Not much.
In the short story, a man whose relationship has ended puts his possessions on the lawn and a young couple comes along, buys some things, dances together because the man asks them to. Both old and young man drink and the girl flirts. The last two lines read, "There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying."
We, too, wish there was more to it. Ironically, in the short story the man plays an active role in moving his belongings outside. No such luck with Nick, who comes home after being fired to find his possessions piled on the lawn by his soon-to-be ex-wife. She's locked him out of the house (at least the nights are warm in the Arizona suburb), and won't be returning until he's sold and/or carted off his things and left for good. Oh, and Nick might want to sign the divorce decree on his way out.
In his role as a functioning alcoholic, Ferrell dives much deeper than with his first serious piece, 2006's Stranger than Fiction. (It's a bit of a cheat to categorize the prior film as his first dramatic role, since he basically plays a robot, an IRS auditor that is, in fact, a figment of a novelist's imagination.) But here, playing a real character with his life falling down around him, asks much more of the actor ... and he does indeed deliver.
But he's not well supported. The scenes are monotonous in tone, writer/director Rush either forgetting or unable to create viable tension between the characters, and the story is simplistic, rife with coincidences that are simply not credible. While adolescent actor C.J. Wallace gives a second strong performance (his prior work in 2009's Notorious was a standout), Rebecca Hall as the new neighbor across the street is given very little to do, and Michael Peña's AA sponsor reads as embarrassingly weak.
When the proceedings finally wrap themselves up with an unearned, perky little bow ... it seems as if there couldn't be a better time for a drink.
Rating on a scale of 5 falls off the wagon: 2
Release date: US: 6 May 2011 (ltd); UK: tbd
Directed by: Dan Rush
Screenplay by: Dan Rush
Based on the short story 'Why Don't You Dance' by: Raymond Carver
Cast: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Michael Peña, Christopher C.J. Wallace, Stephen Root, Laura Dern
Rating: US = R; UK = tbd
Running time: 96 minutes