Everything Must Go
Director : Dan Rush
Screenplay : Dan Rush (based on the short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Will Ferrell (Nick Halsey), Rebecca Hall (Samantha), Michael Peña (Frank Garcia), Christopher Jordan Wallace (Kenny Loftus), Glenn Howerton (Gary), Stephen Root (Elliot), Laura Dern (Delilah)
Writing five years ago about Will Ferrell’s initial step out of his comedic comfort zone into more dramatic acting in the off-beat Hollywood dramedy Stranger Than Fiction (2006), I described Ferrell’s performance as “fine, although it’s really just subdued; Ferrell never gets deeper than the surface to convey the kind of emotional torture one imagines would be associated with knowing that one’s own demise is ‘imminent.’” Perhaps Ferrell (and/or his agent) felt similarly about his performance in that intriguing, but uneven film, as he immediately retreated back into his signature brand of obnoxious, but strangely sympathetic characters in broad comedies like Blades of Glory (2007), Semi-Pro (2008), and Step-Brothers (2008).
In Everything Must Go, a first-time effort by writer/director Dan Rush, Ferrell steps more fully and confidently into dramatic terrain with a performance that reveals heretofore unplumbed depths, perhaps because Ferrell didn’t have the quirky, pseudo-surreal tragicomedy of Stranger Than Fiction to fall back on, thus forcing him to drop his familiar shields and expose a true vulnerability. Ferrell’s most memorable characters have tended to be hulking man-children with misplaced egos, and there is some of that in the character of Nick Halsey, a recently off-the-wagon alcoholic who loses his job and finds himself living on his own front law in the suburbs of Scottsdale, Arizona, after his wife leaves him, dumps his belongings in the yard, and changes all the locks. However, Nick’s immaturity is not a comic conceit used for broad humor; rather, it is portrayed as the tragic symptom of his substance abuse and history of failed relationships.
Knowing that audiences will need some adjustment to Ferrell’s presence in a more dramatic turn, Rush plays with our expectations, giving us early scenes of dark comedy that will be familiar to the actor’s fanbase. When Nick makes the rash decision to slash his boss’s tires after he is unceremoniously fired from his position as a vice president of sales at a large corporation, we want to laugh because it is Ferrell making that bad decision, made all the worse when the knife, which was his going-away present and bears his name on the handle, gets stuck in the tire. Similarly, when he is faced down by a pair of teenage thugs in a convenience store parking lot, his barely suppressed panic and regret at having talked back at them is a standard-issue moment of a Ferrell character’s ego writing a check his body can’t cash. But, just when we might be getting comfortable with the tone, Rush starts darkening the edges, revealing just how low Nick has sunk and, more disturbingly, how much of it is his own fault. The tone is lightened now and again--Nick is awoken each morning when the sprinkler system sprays him in the face, and at one point he relieves himself in the expensive goldfish pond that is his estranged wife’s pride and joy--but otherwise the film is an uncompromised slow burn in which Nick drinks himself into a stupor each day while remaining vigilantly on his front lawn, surrounded by all his belongings, all sense of dignity long since washed away. Whether he will find some kind of redemption at the end of the story is a genuine question, rather than a foregone conclusion.
Everything Must Go was based on a short story by the prolific American writer Raymond Carver, whose lean, mean stories don’t really lend themselves to feature films (Robert Altman assembled a dozen of them into his mosaic 1993 film Short Cuts). Carver’s story, originally published in 1981, is only 1,600 words long; thus, Rush hasn’t so much adapted the story as he has expanded it, filling in what Carver left vague and inventing several new characters with whom Nick can interact. Primary among these is Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a soon-to-be mother who has just moved into the house across the street and is waiting for her husband, still working a job back in New York, to join her. They are essentially at opposite poles in life, with Nick hanging off the edge of his life, about to plummet into the abyss, while Samantha is at the beginning of hers, albeit not without some compromises and potential pitfalls. Nick also befriends Kenny Loftus (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a pudgy preteen whose mother takes care of an elderly woman down the street. Kenny is likeable and honest, and Wallace’s open-faced performance keeps the character from becoming cloying, which is a distinct risk throughout the movie. When Nick hires him to help him sell his stuff in a yard sale, they become a kind of team, with Kenny learning all of Nick’s trade secrets and growing in confidence as a result. Ferrell and Wallace have good, natural chemistry, and their rapport is funny and real.
When Everything Must Go works, it is because it draws us into Nick’s desperate plight and then mires us in the character’s indifference to it all. It would have been too easy for Ferrell to overplay the role, especially since he is so accustomed to portraying characters prone to violent outbursts. There is a tendency to want to see Nick fight and rage against his predicament, but instead he is merely resigned and beaten, sitting back in his battered brown recliner and downing can after can of Pabst Blue Ribbon (it is as if the film takes place in the denouement of his collapse, rather than at the climax). Ferrell has what they would have called a “mug” back the 1940s, a stern face of strong character that has typically been used for exaggerated emotional outbursts. Here, he affects a stoic sense of a loss, his eyes and jaw reflecting a man who has fought many demons and has now acquiesced to his fate. This is very much in keeping with the tone of Carver’s story, as well as many of the writer’s world-weary, beaten, and resigned characters, many of whom have no names. At the same time, though, the film’s obvious metaphoric heaviness (Nick selling all his stuff is a symbolic release of his troubled past) is a bit labored at times, reminding us of why Carver’s stories were frequently so short. Where he found the world in brevity and ambiguity, Rush tries to answer a few too many questions, although he leaves the ending blessedly unresolved, offering soul-gratifying potential without easy guarantees.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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