By Linc Leifeste | May 12, 2011
Director: Dan Rush
Writers: Dan Rush (Screenplay), Raymond Carver (Short story)
Starring: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Laura Dern
You know that age-old saying about not missing your water until your well goes dry, the one that goes like this: “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” After watching Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) struggle through the aftermath of losing his job and wife in the same day I realized the phrase also works as “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s on the lawn.” I was struck by how different things can look when taken out of their normal context, such as Nick’s bedroom furniture and samurai sword collection suddenly residing on his green suburban lawn with all of his other possessions. And the same can be said for Ferrell himself in his unusually restrained performance. It’s striking to see Ferrell rein in his comedic impulses and play something other than than the buffoonish boobs he’s become known for.
A liberal adaptation of Raymond Carver’s brief short story “Why Don’t You Dance,” Everything Must Go is the story of how one man responds to losing almost everything…his job, his wife, his home, his car, his credit cards, his cell phone…well, you get the picture. While he’s turned in somewhat dramatic performances before with his roles in Stranger Than Fiction and Melinda and Melinda, Will Ferrell was still a daring casting choice for first-time writer and director Dan Rush to make and it’s a choice that pays off. Ferrell gives a strong, believable and emotionally vulnerable performance although the film doesn’t always live up to the same standard.
The film opens with Nick being painfully laid off by a younger condescending executive type, apparently due to a recent alcohol-fueled incident with a female co-worker. Presented with a personalized Swiss Army Knife as a parting present, he proceeds to bury it deep in the tire of his firer only to be comically unable to remove it from the tire. Such is the day that Nick is having. It’s upon arriving home and finding his possessions scattered around his front yard that he realizes his wife has also had enough. Unable to get her on the phone and and finding the locks have been changed, he proceeds to do what any semi-recovered alcoholic would do in such a situation. He makes a beer run to the corner store and proceeds to drink. Before long he’s taken up residence in his Barcalounger surrounded by what little is left of his life. Broke (his wife has blocked him from their healthy joint checking account and cancelled his credit cards), alone (no friends make an appearance and his wife has cancelled his cell phone service), and stuck (his former employer has reclaimed his company car), he decides to dig in and make his stand on his front yard.
Of course, Nick is not left alone in his yard for long. After the police respond to complaints about a man living in his front yard by letting him know that he has to vacate, Nick’s friend and AA sponsor Detective Frank Garcia (Michael Pena) buys him a few days by letting him know that he’s now holding a yard sale (which city ordinances allow to last for five days). His peevish neighbor, delightfully played by brilliant character actor Stephen Root, makes an appearance to let Nick know that he saw all this coming from a mile away and to point out that all the furniture will destroy his yard’s root system. And then there’s Samantha (Rebecca Hall), the newly arrived neighbor across the street, pregnant and without husband anywhere to be seen, who provides the only sign of empathy in the neighborhood. But it’s Kenny Loftus (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of late rapper Notorious B.I.G.)an unknown (and clearly out of place in Nick’s very white Scottsdale, Arizona neighborhood) black kid who suddenly appears on his bike and lingers near Nick’s unsecured possessions, that provides the other half of the relationship that’s at the heart of the film. In Nick, Kenny finds something of a father figure but it soon becomes apparent that Nick might be the one more in need of some guidance. What they turn out to be are kindred spirits and an unlikely but believable friendship soon develops.
What we see in these relationships is someone who was already emotionally isolated but is now completely isolated having to try to connect again. Unfortunately, despite an admirable performance by Hall, the relationship with Samantha didn’t fully resonate with me. There were elements that just didn’t strike me as plausible or fully developed. A much better crafted (if somewhat minor) interaction occurs when Nick is reminded of an old high school crush when looking through a yearbook and decides to get in touch. Soon Nick shows up at Delilah’s (Laura Dern) house on Kenny’s bicycle and watching the tender awkwardness on Dern’s face and the mixture of hope and despair that Ferrell brilliantly portrays makes for an emotionally moving experience.
Over it’s length, the film subtly reveals that Nick was already adrift in the sea of life well before being cut loose by his employer and wife. Piece by piece it becomes clear that he’s lost touch with the things that once brought him joy, whether it’s the long neglected vinyl records he begins to reconnect with or the swimming pool that he allowed his wife to turn into a breeding ground for expensive fish. The question now is whether Nick will give up or start the long process of giving life another go.
Where the film succeeds, when it does, is in it’s complexity and nuance. While it’s made clear we shouldn’t sympathize too much with Nick’s wife, keep in mind he is an alcoholic with anger management issues, an unfaithful husband and someone who doesn’t have his act together. But sadly, the film takes repeated shortcuts in manipulating the viewer’s emotions, whether it’s the the condescending executive who fires Nick and his appearance later in the film to twist the knife or the unnecessary and jarring plot twist in the second half of the film that takes the story in a completely different direction. Ultimately, this is a flawed film with some strong performances and brilliant moments.