Saturday, May 21, 2011
Everything Must Go (**1/2)
Written for the Screen and Directed by Dan Rush
Will Ferrell has taken only a precious few ventures into dramatic territory, but Everything Must Go certainly counts amongst his darkest characters. There are no traces of Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby here, but instead the portrait of a drowning man. We are told that this film is based on a short story by Raymond Carver, but we've seen through various examples that Carver's brilliant but dry and internalized style rarely translate to visual medium of cinema. Everything Must Go shares a lot of the issues that those other films possess, but it does have a rather pleasing performance from its lead star and several other sweet moments.
Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a struggling alcoholic who has just been let go of his job of sixteen years, and when he comes home, he finds that his wife Katherine has locked him out of the house and left all of his belongings on the front lawn. Nick responds by sucking down cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and sleeping on a recliner outside in full watch of all his neighbors. He's awoken when sprinkles spray his face and later, he's told by his friend and AA sponsor, Frank (Michael Peña), that he cannot live on his lawn. Frank authorizes Nick's behavior as a Yard Sale, but that only gives Nick five days to sell all his belongings and move away from his lawn.
But Nick is hesitant to get rid of all his stuff. After all, he has a wide collection of vinyl records that he never listens to and a variety of dated outfits that he hasn't worn in decades - indispensable stuff here. But to humor Frank, he decides to put Yard Sale signs around the neighborhood. He even hires a young kid, Kenny (Christopher J. Wallace), and teaches him selling techniques. Kenny agrees to help Nick sell his stuff, but only with minimum wage and some baseball lessons in return. They don't do much of anything in the way of actual "selling", though, as Nick finds it impossible to part with even his most trivial belongings. He even haggles over a half-empty bottle of mouth wash.
At least one of his neighbors sympathizes with his situation. Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a pregnant young woman who's just moved in across the street, comes by the lawn to check on him every once in a while. Her husband is conspicuously absent, so occasionally they'll share an exotic meal or converse about the doom and gloom of a fading marriage. As his five days wind down, Nick slowly realizes the importance of letting go, as he begins to take the sale of his things a little more seriously. With the help of Kenny and Samantha, he may just be able to rebuild his life. But can he get his wife back?
I've often said that I find Farrell to be the funniest Saturday Night Live cast member that I ever watched on the show (I barely watched the show before he was on and haven't watched it since he's left). His films, like Anchorman or Talledega Nights, were always amusing and occasionally hilarious, but I don't think they ever really captured the seemingly effortless comedic approach he had on display in SNL. I've often said that I'll laugh more at any Will Ferrell interview than I will at Blades of Glory. But I think he has shown a nice niche in his (very) few dramatic roles. In Stranger Than Fiction and Winter Passing he began showing glimmers of it, and in Everything Must Go he gives his most fully realized "serious" performances yet.
Sure, Everything Must Go is not a "serious" movie, at least not in the sense in which we usually consider dramatic cinema in this day and age, but it does house some very dark and embittered personalities. None more bitter than Nick, whom Ferrell is able to instill with rage with just a twitch of the eye. Ferrell doesn't rely on cheap tricks to create this internalized anger, but instead does it with pure acting. This will come as a surprise to anyone who's ever seen any other Ferrell film, since he has become the master of getting the cheap laugh. It's a very sweet, thankless performance and Ferrell pulls it off gracefully.
It's a shame, though, that the rest of the film can't live up to it. For anyone who's ever read a Raymond Carver story (and if you haven't - what are you waiting for?), it seems obvious that his limited style would be difficult subject matter to supply an entire feature film. But people keep trying (for what it's worth, Robert Altman's Short Cuts is a fantastic adaptation of several of his stories, but the film only follows those stories very liberally - as in, not at all) and we always end up with screenplays that have to scramble to fill in all the spaces. So many subplots, including Samantha, Kenny and Frank, that it ends up making a 96-minute film feel long.
There are plenty of nice moments in this film, but its flaws are open to the world and they are glaring. At the very least, you can say that you get an interesting, ultimately watchable dramatic performance from one of the country's top funnymen. In the end, there still hasn't been a filmmaker that has been totally committed to recreating Carver's dry sensibilities and commit it to film. There are reasons for that - it probably wouldn't make a very interesting movie.