Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go
The bad news about Everything Must Go is that it doesn’t improve upon the terrific glass shard of a Raymond Carver short story from which it draws inspiration. The good news is that it stands up very well as a movie all by itself. It’s a fresh spin on the old story of a middle aged man going through crisis and it rests on a just-about-perfect performance by Will Ferrell in the lead. Carver fans might come away wondering where the Carver went, but movie fans will have plenty to grab a hold of.
Adaptations of short stories are a tricky business, especially stories like Carver’s which draw their stark power through their minimalism. To add details that flesh out a feature length narrative risks losing the magic of the story in the first place. Robert Altman cleverly got around this problem with the great Short Cuts by layering one Carver story upon another and freely weaving in and out of them. Each fragment supported the ones around it and none of them was required to stand on their own. The stories were allowed to live and breath by themselves while still adding up to a sum greater than each of the parts.
With Everything Must Go, writer/director Dan Rush is telling a much smaller story than the tableau crafted by Altman, but it’s much larger than Carver’s vignette. Why Don’t You Dance revolves around a drunken encounter between a man who has laid out all of his furniture on the front lawn and a young couple who happen by and decide they might like to buy a few things. Rush fills it out so that Nick (Ferrell) is an alcoholic salesman who has lost his job and has been kicked out of his house (along with all of his stuff) by his wife. He resolves to live on his front lawn until he can figure out what to do next, but can only do so under the pretext of having a yard sale. Rush also adds a curious neighbor kid with whom Nick bonds (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a new neighbor across the street with spouse issues of her own (Rebecca Hall), an old high school flame (Laura Dern) and a cop/AA sponsor (Michael Pena).
None of these things improves the stiletto jab of Carver’s piece, but they work well enough on their own as a film. Rush overreaches with his narrative, throwing in one last plot development that ultimately seems like too much, yet perhaps it’s necessary to bring Ferrell’s slow downward spiral to crisis and resolution.
The best part of Everything Must Go is Ferrell himself. He delivers a quietly impactful performance as the man whose personal malfunctions are made more and more painfully clear as the movie goes along. Unlike some comedians working “serious,” he doesn’t fall into the trap of overdoing it. Instead he dials it back, underplaying the drama while letting his natural humor peek through during the film’s funnier moments. The character is potentially pathetic, but Ferrell never loses sight of his basic dignity.
Ultimately, Everything Must Go is a moving little film. Nick’s trajectory is painful but the resolution offers a note of hope. At the same time, it’s open ended and a little bit ambiguous. Nick has tried and failed to change before so there’s no guarantee of smooth sailing once the camera stops rolling. On the other hand, there’s also a feeling that each day is a new day to start over no matter how dark things get.
Everything Must Go. USA 2011. Written and directed by Dan Rush from the short story Why Don’t You Dance by Raymond Carver. Cinematography by Michael Barrett. Musical score composed by David Torn. Edited by Sandra Adair. Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Laura Dern, Michael Pena, Stephen Root and Christopher Jordan Wallace. 1 hour 36 minutes. MPAA Rated R. 3.5 stars (out of 5)
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