Down and flat out in Arizona

Everything Must Go(15), Sleeping Beauty (18)

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The Independent Culture

At times it was only nervousness about Will Ferrell's capability that kept me rooting for Everything Must Go. Ferrell has made his name playing overgrown boys (Step Brothers) and throwback narcissists (Anchorman, Blades of Glory), to the point where the possibility of seriousness seemed beyond him. But in writer-director Dan Rush's feature debut he hunkers down to his first straight role, or semi-straight, given that his large, ungainly body and piggy frown will always hold an inherent clownishness.

He is Nick Halsey, a middle-management executive whose chronic boozing has got him fired. He goes back to his home in suburban Arizona to find that his wife has left him, changing the locks and cancelling the credit cards on the way. Oh, and all of his possessions now lie parked on the lawn, like a house turned inside out. Nick reacts in character: he buys a few six-packs of beer, settles down on his recliner and gets soused. Rush is adapting from a short story, "Why Don't You Dance?" by Raymond Carver, a writer lost for years to alcoholism before he turned his life around. For Nick, too, things are going to get worse before they get even a little better.

In the meantime, he sits on the lawn and watches the road. He chats with his new neighbour, Samantha (Rebecca Hall), who's pregnant and awaiting the arrival of her husband from the East Coast. They detect a loneliness in one another and don't quite know what to do about it. Then a local kid named Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) rides by on his bicycle, takes a look at the detritus on the lawn and agrees to partner Nick on his new venture – a yard sale. It's a sort of holding operation while he decides whether or not he'll drink himself into oblivion. Everything Must Go is the latest in a wavelet of films about American unemployment, pitched somewhere between the grim realities of male depression (The Company Men) and the can-do perkiness of Tom Hanks in Larry Crowne. Its comedy of inanition occasionally threatens, like Nick, to grind to a standstill, and one worries that Ferrell, divested of his natural mischief, is just too flat and glum for the film's good.

It is rescued, I think, by one great encounter. At his wit's end, Nick goes off in search of an old classmate who once wrote a nice comment about him in their high-school yearbook. Laura Dern plays the friend, a kindly divorcee who's taken aback by his sudden reappearance, but, like Hall's Samantha, decently makes the best of an awkward situation. Dern brings such a lot of warmth that you actually come to believe these two really did know one another, and Ferrell's desperate blankness falls away to reveal – an accepting blankness. This doesn't signal salvation, by any means. The film lightens the load while remaining elusive about Nick's long-term prospects, so elusive that we never actually see the wife who upped and left him at the beginning. I'm still not sure about Will Ferrell as a soul in torment, but he is surrounded by enough talent for him to get away with it this time.

From a man with no job to a woman with a few too many in the Australian psychodrama Sleeping Beauty. Emily Browning plays the babydoll-faced Lucy, allegedly a university student, but too busy with menial jobs ever to be seen studying. She waits tables in a cafe; she does guinea-pig trials at a medical centre; she photocopies documents in an office. No rest in the evenings, either, when she turns tricks in downtown bars. And still she's behind on the rent for her grotty flat. That changes when she's recruited for a waitressing service at a poncy dining club, the catch being that she does it stripped to her scanties.

First-time writer-director Julia Leigh (she made her name as a novelist) has the backing of fellow Australian Jane Campion, who perhaps saw something of her own early films in the conception of the enigmatic Lucy. Oddly passive, Lucy seems half the time to be sleepwalking through her life, though we detect hints of chaos bulging at the margins. Her mum, whom we never see, runs an astrology hotline and only phones to ask her daughter for money. More puzzling is Lucy's relationship with her one friend, Birdman (Ewen Leslie), whose failing health seems to be ignored by both of them (and, less plausibly, by the medical services). Leigh composes her story in slightly chilly, tableau-style set-ups, a detached perspective that is clearly meant to jar with the weird goings-on in Lucy's bob-a-blowjob life.

It gets weirder. The dining club's madam, Clara (Rachael Blake), turns out to run a sideline catering for geronto-sexual perversion: with only the assurance of a "no penetration" clause, Lucy is put to sleep in a bedchamber and rented for the night by ageing male clients. This "sleeping beauty" transaction goes on until Lucy feels driven to know exactly what they do with her... Leigh's calm, nonjudgmental attitude to this abuse is unlikely to be widely shared by right-thinking audiences, who will baulk at the idea of drugged (and paid) oblivion as a playground for old men's sex fantasies. (If a man had made this film it would would bring down an avalanche of execration). It isn't an easy film to like, let alone enjoy, though Leigh's provocative view of objectification goes hand-in-hand with an undoubted cinematic eye.