“Everything Must Go,” debuting director Dan Rush’s adaptation of Raymond Carver’s six-page short story “Why Don’t You Dance?,” doesn’t quite lift Carver’s hauntingly minimalist tone from the page. By creating a back-story for its vague central figure—a solemnly drunk man inexplicably selling his belongings out of his backyard—he’s inevitably extracted some of the dark ambiguity of Carver’s prose. But while not a great film, “Everything Must Go” will be remembered for drawing an amazingly restrained performance from ex-“SNL” star Will Ferrell. His break from impetuous man-child form renders the film an offbeat, frequently poignant outing.
Like past Ferrell roles, Nick Halsey is certainly a victim of his own arrested development, but this particular sad-sack is phenomenally passive. A mediocre cars salesman, Nick loses his job to a hotshot sleaze (Glenn Howerton). A weak husband, he comes home to find his wife gone, the locks changed, and all of his possessions sprawled out on his front lawn. A pushover, he barely reacts when his wife freezes his bank account and his company car is revoked. An incorrigible alcoholic—enrolled in AA, no less—he uses his few remaining dollars to drink himself into a beer-belly stupor.
The police warn him that he has five days to get off the lawn before he’s considered a trespasser, but he just sits there stewing with no game plan, the same hound dog expression plastered on his face. His only friends are the kindly, pregnant neighbor that just moved in (Rebecca Hall, underused but elegant) and the lonely grade school kid he eventually employs to sell his wares (Christopher Jordan Wallace).
Rush gives all this an Alexander Payne-esque pall of morbid humor. Like “About Schmidt,” we feel empathy for this put-upon character, waiting for him to achieve redemption through his detractors’ comeuppance—all while realizing that he’s sort of a jerk and doesn’t deserve redemption. It’s a neat trick, casting Ferrell, whom we always long to see achieving angry victory, as this dead-eyed lug.
Yet ironically, because Ferrell’s character remains so bottled-up, the film itself often loses momentum. There isn’t much to Nick but his absurd insistence on staying in the yard, a comic conceit that wears thin after a while. And the deadpan approach may simply alienate viewers awaiting one of Ferrell’s patented freak-outs.
However, Rush, perhaps realizing the dramatic limitations of the plot, shakes off these doldrums by injecting a variety of innovative subplots. Stephen Root turns up as a nosy neighbor with his own twisted secret; Ferrell’s disgusted reaction is a hoot. Nick’s estranged wife—never shown—has a koi pond powered by a device that constantly plays lounge music; it’s a perverse delight watching Ferrell drunkenly piss in the pond, finally giving his character that Ferrell-esque impulsivity. And—trite and corny as it is to have a child serve as Nick’s saving grace—the budding friendship/salesmanship between Nick and the school kid is both heartfelt and hilarious. “Come to dinner with us,” Ferrell pleads to Hall. “The kid’s paying. You’ll have to drive, though.”
Ferrell’s comic timing is uncanny throughout “Everything Must Go,” but he’s also pathetic and stubborn in a far more hard-edged fashion than before. With just a little more range laid out for him, his next serious performance could be a lot more than just a neat stunt.