Will Ferrell Channels Raymond Carver — And It Works!

May 6, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 12 4 min read

The 10th Tribeca Film Festival, which ended May 1, was a richly musical affair.  It featured movies about Kings of Leon, A Tribe Called Quest, Ozzy Osbourne, Miriam Makeba, the irrepressible Haitian band Septentrional, the Academy Award-winning songwriters Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, and a new Cameron Crowe documentary about Elton John and Leon Russell.  Nearly lost in this pleasing din were two quiet movies, a feature and a documentary, that grew, respectively, out of a work of literature and the misguided urge to lionize writers.

Will Ferrell Channels Raymond Carver
coverEverything Must Go, the writing and directing debut of Dan Rush, is adapted from a Raymond Carver short story called “Why Don’t You Dance?”  Rush makes two crucial creative decisions, one necessary, one risky.  First, he fleshes out Carver’s bare-bones story, which was little more than a sketch after it was edited – some would say butchered – by Gordon Lish’s heavy blue pencil.  Then Rush makes a daring and, as it turns out, inspired casting choice: He puts ham-fisted funnyman Will Ferrell (Old School, Anchorman, Talladega Nights, etc.) in the dark lead role of Nick Halsey, a super-salesman who just got sacked from his job because of his drinking.  As the movie opens, Nick is sitting in his parked car, gulping down a flask of whiskey while chanting salesman mantras and fuming over the indignity of his firing.  His troubles haven’t begun.  After stopping for a couple of 12-packs of beer, he returns to his home in a nameless Arizona suburb to find his possessions scattered across his front yard, the locks changed, his bank account frozen, his wife gone.  A cop buddy from A.A. stops by with a three-day permit for a yard sale.  That’s how long Nick has to get his act together, or fall into the blackest of holes.  The narrative time bomb has begun ticking.

Rush wisely ignores the ticking and sets a leisurely pace, lets the camera linger, lets his actors build emotional momentum slowly, quietly.  This is important to a Carver story, as Marilynne Robinson noted back in 1988: “His impulse to simplify is like an attempt to create a hush, not to hear less, but to hear better.”

And that’s what this movie comes down to – Nick’s process of learning how to hear, and see, better.  Ferrell is outstanding as the wounded soul who can’t hear or see anything at the outset – until he meets Rush’s most inspired addition to Carver’s original cast, Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a chubby kid with demons of his own who becomes Nick’s unlikely ally, his teacher in the art of saving himself.  Another addition is a pregnant neighbor named Samantha (Rebecca Hall), who is moving in across the street and will become the valve that allows Nick to empty the poison from his soul.

It works beautifully because Ferrell conveys an almost impossible stew of emotions – rage, self-pity, insecurity and a dry sense of humor that never comes close to turning hammy.  What a pleasant pair of surprises: there’s a new director worth watching, and Will Ferrell can actually act.

The Creepy World of Mrs. Neal Cassady
The documentary Love Always, Carolyn has the (unintended?) virtue of showing us just how creepy literary hagiography can get.  Directed by first-timers Maria Ramstrom and Malin Korkeasalo, it opens with its subject, Carolyn Cassady, telling the filmmakers, “I’m not known as a writer.  The only reason anyone is interested in me is because I was married to Neal Cassady and was a lover of Jack Kerouac.  No one has ever cared about anything else.  Even you – so far.”  It gets darker.  “I wish I could stop talking about it,” Carolyn continues.  “I have to keep saying the same things over and over.  So it’s very tiresome.”  And darker.  “In a secret way I kind of dig the attention.  So it’s, you know, a conflict.”

covercoverWe learn other things about conflicted Carolyn Cassady, who is now an old lady with a crinkly, sour face.  We learn that she wrote a book called Off the Road: My Years With Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg – “to set the record straight and not be bothered,” she claims.  We learn that she’s still pissed off that she didn’t get a dime of royalties for the iconic photograph she took of Jack and Neal that graces the cover of Neal’s unfinished autobiography, The First Third.  We learn that Neal frequently left her at home to raise their three children while he ricocheted around the country, to Tangier and Mexico City and back, fucking anything that walked upright, male or female, eventually abandoning his booze-marinated buddy Kerouac in favor of Ken Kesey and his acidophilic Merry Pranksters, tripping with them until he collapsed on some railroad tracks in Mexico and died at the age of 41.  As Carolyn dryly notes, “He didn’t quite get the marriage thing together.”

Their son John, who is obviously damaged goods, says, “I was, like, Neal’s fan rather than his kid.”  Yet John Cassady soldiers on, giving talks at the Beat Museum in San Francisco, introducing his mother at readings, exploring potential new revenue streams such as a beverage called “Cassady Wine” that comes in a jug with a handle to make it look like authentic hobo rotgut.

Sitting through this creepy movie was the longest 70 minutes I’ve spent outside a jail cell, and it reminded me of the recent William S. Burroughs documentary, A Man Within, which I wrote about here last year.  They’re both part of the tsunami of beat documentaries, biographies, critical studies, feature films, magazine articles, memoirs, websites and blogs that just keeps rolling along.  I said it last year, but after watching Love Always, Carolyn I’ll say it again: Will you Beat hagiographers please be quiet, please?

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. I’ve been looking forward to EVERYTHING MUST GO since I read the illegally-downloaded script, I can’t wait to see the finished product. Also just want to interject that the casting of Ferrell as a low-energy straight man has precedence—he certainly wasn’t a funnyman in STRANGER THAN FICTION. Hope, like many great comedic actors before him, that he continues to have his pick of comedic and dramatic roles.

  2. I think Will Ferrell will be great in this role, exceptional comedians can play anything. And I loved your closing statement, my sentiments exactly.

  3. Re the Will Ferrell movie: we need to have more movies like this. What’s really creepy is how much TV/film are ignoring the collapse of the economy. What’s art for?

  4. Wow Bill you are HARSH on the Beats. Sorry but people are still interested in the movement that changed modern social views and politics. No Beats, no Hippies, good or bad, that changed and opened some minds. Just because you hate it so, doesn’t mean you need to bash so hard. Lighten up buddy! Wow

  5. To Jamie:
    Maybe you’re right. Maybe I forgot to take my meds the day I wrote the review of “Love Always, Carolyn.” But please don’t misunderstand — I LOVE much Beat writing. It’s the hero worship, the hagiography and the tawdry “scholarship” that makes my flesh crawl. I just wish people would stop fetishizing the writers and start reading their books. I promise I’ll try to lighten up. Thanks for reading The Millions — and for taking the time to pass along your thoughts.
    Bill Morris

  6. Since I’ve never seen Will Ferrell except in trailers, looks like now I’ll get to see him in the Raymond Carver flick thanks to Mr. Morris enthusiastic review.
    The Beats? Now that I’m well beyond the initial sophomoric enthusiasm that put me on the road in the U.S. and Europe 40 years ago, I suppose I’ll have to re-read some of them to determine if they hold up in an aging and changing head. Will probably stick with the books inhstead of documentaries as per Mr. Morris’ recommendation. .

  7. Interesting review–makes me curious about one, sure I won’t be so about the other. Lives of the Beats demonstrate not only that art and literature cannot be judged by the character of the artist but that sometimes even bad artists can sometimes produce works that have an impact. One might wonder how many great novels, paintings, even works of philosophy have been left “to the gnawing criticism of mice.” Perhaps the reviewer should protect his old writings.

  8. I think Morris probably got it right about the blather on the Beats, but why go for bunch of deadly dull truth when instead you could help build yet another tsunami (that’s a nice new word. I think I’ll use it more often.) of balderdash leading to yet another icon of doubtful provenance. Instead of shutting down the Beat worship, I think it should be expanded and intensified.
    Look what a bunch of really super good PR work did for christianity and how happy that has made so many people. And it’s created a lot of jobs and, goodness knows, we do need jobs.

    Maybe after that review I will go see feral Ferrell.

  9. Good review of Everything Must Go. It’ll be interesting to see Ferrell using his talents in a not so ham-handed way.

    I would recommend to David Newton that he retain his cherished memories of beat literature and not try to reread it. If he’s 40 years beyond his sophomoric enthusiasm, I think he’ll find Kerouac stultifyng at this point in his life.

  10. I remember a little about Radical Chic and Painted Word. Did Tom Wolfe ever slam Kerouac and company? Seems reasonable to expect so.

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