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Everything Must Go

Will Ferrel in Everything Must Go.

Make Him an Offer, or a Drink

Everything Must Go

Those people who have been wondering what a real showcase for Will Ferrell’s acting would be like—surely a very small cohort of the general population—need wonder no longer. First-time feature director Dan Rush has provided the comic actor one in Everything Must Go, even if that wasn’t his intention when he undertook the project.

Rush has said he was inspired after reading Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” to expand and embroider this short story into a film script. He’s supplied a missing backstory, a number of additional characters (while dropping Carver’s), and a new narrative. In fact, virtually nothing in his film remains of Carver’s typically spare, very brief story, which was all of six pages in the Vantage edition paperback, including extensive white space. The title comes from one of Carver’s lines of dialogue, there’s a lawn sale, and that’s about it.

Exercising his dramatic sinews and muscles, Ferrell is Nick Halsey, vice president for sales at a large Arizona corporation. At least he was. As the film opens, he’s just been fired for another of his alcoholic imbroglios, this time one that involves a sexual complaint. And when he returns to his handsomely appointed home, he finds his wife has decamped, after having the locks changed and blocking access to their joint bank account. She’s also had his possessions dumped out front. Nursing his defeats, and a hangover, Nick bivouacs in a leather recliner on the lawn amid his mostly expensive accumulated stuff—including a baseball autographed by a mid-1970s championship team—drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon, and waits, for what he doesn’t seem to know.

Rush’s expansive reworking of Carver’s story has provided Ferrell with the best acting opportunity of his career, including 2006’s Stranger Than Fiction. For the most part, he makes impressive use of it, coming reasonably close to making Nick a plausible character in a movie that relies on an arbitrarily whimsical conceit and a few artful coincidences, not to mention an occasional recourse to poignance-milking cuteness. Ferrell’s performance never deteriorates into overworked effects. He underplays many of his lines, only rarely allowing his patented broad-beamed goofiness to seep in. Ferrell has one of the more unlikely pusses for a serious leading role, but his use of it here sometimes lends a sense of gravity, even urgency, to the material when Rush doesn’t create it. He uses a slightly twisted half smile, or perhaps a grimace, and a deadening of his voice to suggest a camouflaged anguish.

Rush’s setup almost has metaphor printed on it, but he hasn’t aimed for a Cheever-esque bleak suburban surreality, or even an overtly unpleasant resonance. Nick’s most starkly difficult and degraded moments, as he’s confronted by his eventual inability to wet his whistle, and his habit, are only Lost Weekend lite, and easy for him and us to get over. Rush goes for mildly painful poignance and insights and sometimes settles for a note of cuteness. The heart of this last element is Nick’s impromptu relationship with a smart but inhibited and overweight twelve-year-old boy (Christopher C. J. Wallace, son of the late rapper Biggie Smalls). It’s feel-good stuff, but it plays agreeably. Then there’s Samantha (Rebecca Hall), the young expectant woman who’s moving into the house across the street without the assistance of her apparently absent husband, who offers a different kind of personal challenge, and support, to Nick. Both these actors are fine. Rush seems to have had a sure, talented hand in encouraging them.

On the evidence of this film, he’s a better director than a writer. His scenes are effectively paced and interconnected. Everything Must Go has an unhurried, focused quality, perhaps a little surprising given Rush’s background in TV commercials. His film doesn’t go very deep psychologically or socially, but its ostensibly redemptive endgame has a muted disquieting note, suggesting that everything isn’t really gone.

Watch the trailer for Everything Must Go

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