By Chris Nashawaty
Updated September 02, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT
John Estes

Sooner or later, laughter just isn’t enough. No matter how far back you look, you’ll find a big-screen comedian desperate to be taken seriously: Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Jim Carrey, and even Chris Farley, who was working on a dramatic biopic of Fatty Arbuckle — another clown crying on the inside — when he died. Why? Because every funnyman (and woman; see: Goldberg, Whoopi) wants to stretch and get a little respect. Which brings us to Will Ferrell. In his seven seasons on Saturday Night Live, Ferrell specialized in hilarious blowhards who were so clueless that their cluelessness became the punchline. His movie career has relied on that same formula — the only difference from film to film is his jackass character’s profession (NASCAR driver, local news anchor, figure skater). Now, following 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction, comes Everything Must Go (2011, R, 1 hr., 37 mins.), in which he plays a sad-sack alcoholic who’s fired from his job and comes home to find that his wife has changed the locks and tossed all of his belongings onto the front lawn. Rather than admit defeat, he camps out and throws a yard sale, learning life lessons along the way. Ferrell is surprisingly good, even if you don’t fully buy him as a man at the end of his rope. Like Steve Carell as a hangdog widower in 2007’s Dan in Real Life, Ferrell can’t help occasionally falling back on his comedy tics when things threaten to get too heavy. They could both learn a little by watching Robin Williams. Say what you will about Williams’ tendency to indulge in sap, he’s one of the few comedians willing to risk being earnest, in films like 1989’s Dead Poets Society and 1997’s Good Will Hunting (for which he won an Oscar). Actually, I think that Ferrell could win one of those too one day. He’s hugely talented. The only question is whether he’s able to stop playing the fool. Everything Must Go: B