Raymond Carver penned a bleak, oblique, short story about an alcoholic husband whose possessions are scattered all over his front lawn, which leads passersby to assume mistakenly that he is conducting a yard sale. First time writer/director Dan Rush spun this unusual premise into a more extended story and turned it into a fine independent movie that too few people noticed: Everything Must Go.
The plot: The life of salesman Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) is collapsing around him. His drunken misbehavior on a business trip leads to him being sued and fired. Returning home, he finds that his long-suffering wife has left him, locking him out of the house and having all his possessions dumped onto the front lawn on her way out. With his credit cards cancelled and his bank account locked, Nick only has the cash in his pocket, which he spends on cases of beer. He settles into his recliner and begins living amidst the wreckage on his front lawn, gulping Pabst Blue Ribbon, watching his neighbors, and interacting with a series of visitors to his new home.
Among the best moments in this film is one that could have been a disaster. A bike-riding teenage African-American boy (Christopher C.J. Wallace) engages with Nick beginning about 15 minutes in. When this scene started, I cringed thinking “Oh no, not another soulful, wise, Black character who helps a lost Caucasian protagonist find meaning again”. But Rush is too talented a writer to fall into that cliché. Instead we get a well-rounded, well-acted Black character named Kenny Loftus, a mass of undirected talent and low self-confidence whose weaknesses and strengths interlock perfectly with Nick’s.
Nick’s relationship with Kenny and with a pregnant, perhaps abandoned woman who is moving in across the street (Rebecca Hall) are the emotional heart of the movie, supplemented by Nick’s interactions with his AA sponsor (Michael Peña) and encounter with a woman he knew in high school (Laura Dern). With so much focus on the central character’s relationships and not much action in the story, this film lives or dies with Ferrell, and he rings true every time. Of course he is funny at the funny moments, but his vulnerability in the story’s painful moments is also achingly well-done. He turns Nick into a character that the audience roots for not because he will ever be a superhero, but because we just don’t want such a good-hearted but flawed human being to go on destroying himself.
The film’s second half has some structural flaws. A number of movies employ plot symmetry in which a character’s evolution is illustrated by having a series of encounters from the first half of the movie replayed in altered form in the second half. Sometimes this works (e.g., A Clockwork Orange), but here it feels forced, particularly Nick’s encounter near the end of the film with the boss who fired him in the first scene. Rush also gives in a bit too much to sentimentality in how he wraps up some of the relationships in the movie.
But the originality of the premise, the honest moments and the strong performances make Everything Must Go a promising debut for writer/director Dan Rush. I hope we see more from him.
I also hope we will see more dramatic performances from Will Ferrell. One of the foundational injustices of how people judge movies is the widespread lack of appreciation that giving a good comic performance is as hard or harder as giving a good dramatic performance. When a comedic actor crosses over to a dramatic role and does well at it, most people say “I didn’t realize s/he could act” when they should say “Maybe being a comic actor takes more acting ability than I realize”. Will Ferrell, like Robin Williams, Carol Burnett, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray et al. have been good actors all along, we just don’t seem to notice it when we are laughing so hard.