Everything Must Go (United States, 2011)May 15, 2011
As their careers develop, many comedians yearn to cross over into serious dramatic roles, if only on occasion. This has happened with John Cleese, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey, and Adam Sandler. Some are more successful than others, but expectations play as big a part in the actor's reception as the actual performance. Everything Must Go is not Will Ferrell's first "straight" part (previous serious - or at least semi-serious - endeavors include Stranger than Fiction and Winter Passing), but it's the first time he has consciously leeched all but the most subtle humor from his character. There are not a lot of laughs in Dan Rush's directorial debut, nor are there intended to be. Rush keeps the tone as light as possible, but no one would mistake this for anything other than a quirky, character-based drama.
The question is: Is there an audience for Everything Must Go? Ferrell's core demographic will likely be as stupefied by his performance as Sandler's devotees were by Punch Drunk Love. Can a wider audience accept someone previously recognized as a goofball clown as an alcoholic everyman who isn't a "funny drunk"? Ferrell's portrayal is convincing. We end up rooting for his Nick Halsey even though the man is, by his own admission, unreliable and prone to bad judgments. Hardly a frame goes by when Nick isn't holding a beer can in one hand.
The story transpires in a generic suburban town in Arizona. Nick is experiencing the worst day of his life. After being fired from his job, he comes home to discover that his wife has left him, changing all the locks and throwing his stuff out on the front lawn. Shortly thereafter, he learns that the woman scorned has frozen his bank account and canceled his credit cards. If he had a dog, it would have up-and-died. Despondent, Nick buys a couple of six-packs and collapses in a recliner sitting among the debris of his failed marriage in his front yard. It looks like he's ready to stay there for the rest of his life until his policeman friend and AA sponsor, Frank Garcia (Michael Pena), shows up with a "yard sale" permit. That gives Nick five days to get his act together before the cops will forcibly remove him. At first, Nick plans to spend that time drinking, but he eventually decides to give the yard sale a try. So he hires a local kid, Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), to help out with the logistics. Meanwhile, a new neighbor across the street, Samantha (Rebecca Hall), shows sympathy for the obviously downtrodden Nick.
In its telling of a tale of a man fighting an addiction, Everything Must Go covers no new ground and is more generally hopeful than many similar stories. Nick is a functioning drunk, which means that we are rarely subjected to the episodes of mania, melancholia, and rage that are staples of dramas about alcoholics and alcoholism. With the exception of the sequence in which Nick goes through withdrawal because he's without money and booze, Rush's treatment of the disease is subdued (at least when compared to the traditional cinematic portrayal of it). Nick is not repugnant or cartoonish (contrast this character with Russell Brand's Arthur re-interpretation); he has "a good heart" and even when drunk, he doesn't turn into a monster (at least not that we see). The arc traversed by Everything Must Go follows Nick from denial to acceptance and, when the closing credits make their appearance, the unanswered questions are secondary to the sense of partial closure.
Everything Must Go features two key relationships. The first is the bond that develops between Nick and Kenny, a kid who spends his days riding a bicycle up and down the block. Due in part to a lack in the screenplay, this friendship seems forced and undernourished. Other movies in which kids and adults have forged ties have accomplished something more emotionally satisfying when establishing a surrogate father/son relationship. The second is the interaction between Nick and Samantha, the pregnant woman-across-the-street who is waiting for her husband to join her in their new home. Nick and Samantha are both lonely and they discover a temporary kinship in that loneliness. The best scene between them occurs as they sit outside eating Chinese while Nick confides his failures to Samantha. Rush wisely avoids turning this into a romance. That would be an obvious and inappropriate connection and would have degraded the honesty and simplicity of the story.
As with all character studies, this one hinges entirely on the viewer's ability to accept Ferrell in the lead role. Credit is deserved; during the course of Everything Must Go, I never felt the sense of disconnect that sometimes occurs while watching a comedian attempt something serious. I was not waiting for a punch line. I was not primed to laugh. I accepted Ferrell as Nick and, because of that, I was able to enjoy Everything Must Go on its own terms.
Everything Must Go (United States, 2011)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Dan Rush, based on the short story "Why Don't You Dance?" by Raymond Carver
Cinematography: Michael Barrett
Music: David Torn