Having recently seen The Beaver, I left the feature debut of writer-director Dan Rush contemplating the possibility that, at this rate, middle-age alcoholics whose lives have fallen apart will soon become as much a cinematic fixture as vampires or pirates. And concluding that this would not be a bad thing.
Especially if they’re played with the depth, restraint and emotional precision Will Ferrell displays in Everything Must Go. The comedic megastar shifts into serious gear for this extrapolation of the Raymond Carver short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”
He’s Nick Halsey, an Arizona salesman who’s climbed the corporate ladder and gotten help for his drinking problem, only to fall off the wagon during a business trip to Denver. What happened there definitely didn’t stay there, and it costs Nick his job. That’s sad. But even sadder is the fact that he can’t remember what he did.
Sadder still is watching the remaining dominoes of Nick’s suburban existence topple. He arrives home to discover his wife has moved out, he’s been locked out of his house, and all his stuff has been thrown on his front lawn. He later learns his bank account has been frozen, and his credit cards don’t work. One can imagine how the character would have reacted to all this had he been played by, say, Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler. It’s difficult, however, to imagine another actor embodying the Zen acceptance Ferrell brings to the role.
Rush has taken a one-note, bare-bones story and fleshed it out nicely with characters and plotlines of his own invention. Nick’s initial reaction is to buy a lot of beer — Pabst Blue Ribbon — and kick back in his La-Z-Boy recliner. The neighbors peeking through the curtains can feel their property values nosediving, so it isn’t long before police are on the scene. Despite his seemingly rational contention that he should be able to do whatever he wants on his own turf, Nick is told the law will permit him and all his earthly possessions to remain on the premises only if he holds a yard sale.
As he does so, a number of Rush’s inventions wander into Nick’s life. Rebecca Hall is Samantha, a pregnant beauty who’s just moved in across the street, her husband mysteriously absent. Tender but a romantic dead end, their relationship reminded me of the one between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.
Then there’s Kenny, a black teenager who rides his bike up and down the street all day — until Nick makes him his business partner. Christopher Jordan Wallace is the son of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. and a seriously gifted actor. The scenes where Nick passes on his secrets of salesmanship are as touching as they are funny.
At its heart, though, Everything Must Go is not a comedy, not even a black one. It’s the story of a man whose life is broken and who isn’t sure he has the energy or interest necessary to fix it. There’s a very powerful scene toward the end when the beer and the money have run out, and Nick is faced with his worst fear. Ferrell absolutely nails the guy’s panic and existential desperation. Ultimately, the film is about this moment and what Nick does with it.
Some will find the final act a tad pat; I have to admit I did. If it stands out as a misstep on Rush’s part, however, it’s only because everything that precedes it is so brilliantly original and free of formula. Robert Altman likewise mined Carver material for his 1993 movie Short Cuts, and I dare say Everything Must Go is the better film. It’s a singular creation. Everyone should go.