Thor: It’s hammer time! Will Ferrell delivers the goods in Everything Must Go

by Mark Burger

The summer movie season gets underway in grand and goofy fashion with Thor , the big-screen adaptation of the popular Marvel Comics character.

Chris Hemsworth plays the title role under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, who stuffs much of the character’s origins into an opening, lengthy, sometimes laughable exposition that defies easy description and practically defines the term “mumbo-jumbo.”

Thor is banished from his home planet of Asgard to a distant world — ours — after he rashly defies his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and riles up their sworn enemy, the Frost Giants (led by Colm Feore). Little does Thor know that his own half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) covets Odin’s throne for his own, and Thor being out of the way makes it that much easier.

All of this is just about as silly as it sounds.

In mythology, Thor is the God of Thunder, and Thor is nothing if not loaded with thunder and bombast and extravagant CGI special effects.

Adjusting to the customs of Earth takes some doing on Thor’s part, but he’s got brainy, beautiful scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) lending her expertise… when she’s not batting her eyelashes at him, that is.

As the story jumps back and forth from Asgard to Earth, however, the film hampers its own momentum. The battle that Thor left behind threatens to burst forth into our dimension. Thus the fates of two worlds hang in the balance, and only our hammer-wielding hero can save the day. It may be ungallant to reveal that he succeeds to this end, but is that even a remote surprise?

A competent cast works around the CGI special effects as best it can. Hemsworth is buff and brash as Thor, and Portman holds her own, more or less, as an obligatory love interest who’s a few cuts above the prototypical damsel in distress. Comic relief is provided by Stellan Skarsgard as the obligatory scientist and Kat Dennings as the obligatory wisecracking sidekick, two very familiar character types. Hopkins appears to be enjoying himself more than he has lately onscreen.

Rene Russo, Clark Gregg, Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson, Adriana Barraza and an unbilled Jeremy Renner are also on hand, as is Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. (Marvel fans are advised to stick around until after the end credits.)

The problem is that the superhero genre has lost considerable luster in recent years. Thus far, in the Marvel Universe alone, we’ve had three Spider-Mans (with a reboot due next year), two Iron Mans, a pair of Hulks (neither of which pleased fans), two Fantastic Fours (neither of which was fantastic) and three X-Mens (four if you count Wolverine), with a prequel due later this summer. At some point, all of them will congregate for the Avengers movie — which gets a token plug here.

There are only so many ways to save the world but more than enough superheroes to do it, and a lot of the basic trappings have become familiar, so much so that many of these movies tend to blend together in the memory.

Thor is impressive and fun in individual scenes, but as a whole it’s just another superhero movie, better than some, not as good as others. Branagh keeps things moving and even throws in a bit of the Arthurian legend and basic Shakespearean themes, which he’s undoubtedly familiar with, given his highly successful oeuvre of Shakespeare adaptations over the years. He treats the material as seriously as it warrants.

If nothing else, Thor is far superior to Branagh’s last high-concept, big-budget outing, the lamentable 1994 screen version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That’s something, at least.

Opening Friday, Everything Must Go is adapted from a Raymond Carver story and marks both an auspicious debut by screenwriter/director Dan Rush but also a superlative turn by Will Ferrell in the lead role.

Ferrell has proven repeatedly that he can be very funny. Here, he goes beyond that with a performance that ranks among his best to date.

The film has barely begun than Ferrell’s Nick Halsey sees his entire life hit rockbottom. Thanks to an ongoing drinking problem, Nick loses his job, then returns home only to discover that his wife has left him and deposited his belongings on the front lawn of their suburban Arizona home.

It is there, in plain view of the neighborhood, that Nick will attempt to reassess and rebuild. Interactions with friends and neighbors (including Rebecca Hall, Michael Pena, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Stephen Root and Laura Dern) give Nick an insight into his own faults and failings — and also, perhaps, the key to a fresh start.

Everything Must Go is filled of great little scenes that aren’t arbitrary or random; they have a cumulative impact. Much like its principal character, the story grows as it goes. It’s smart, sharp and even moving at times, with Ferrell’s portrait of self-loathing a terrific combination of comedy and tragedy.

The actor boasts some box-office clout, which may be put to the test here. Everything Must Go is being released by an independent studio, and there’s the danger that it could get lost in the shuffle amid the big-budget blockbusters. That would be a shame, because this is one of the best films of the year.