A film review by Craig J. Koban September 28, 2011


2011, R, 96mins.

Will Ferrell: Nick / Rebecca Hall: Samantha / Christopher Jordan Wallace: Kenny / Michael Pena: Det. Garcia / Laura Dern: Delilah

Written and directed by Dan Rush, based on Raymond Carver's short story "Why Don't You Dance?"

"They say that the dining room is the least utilized place of the home.  I'd have to say it's the front lawn"

- Nick (Will Ferrell) in EVERYTHING MUST GO

EVERYTHING MUST GO has elements of comedy, but it in no way should be labeled as a feel-good entertainment.  If anything, Dan Rush’s feature length directorial debut is actually kind of thanklessly daring for making his main character, Nick Halsey, an unsympathetic loser that's also a down-on-his-luck and spirally out of control alcoholic that takes great pains to ensure that both he and those around him suffer.  

Perhaps one of the small miracles of EVERYTHING MUST GO is that Nick is played by Will Ferrell, a performer typically reserved to manic comedic roles where he takes great relish in doing just about anything for a laugh.  In hindsight, it’s quite amazing just how understated and uncanny Ferrell is at dialing into the darkly melancholic recesses of this implosively intense sap.  

Ferrell has been one of the funniest screen actors of his generation (if you need proof then look no further than ANCHORMAN, TALLADEGA NIGHTS, and the more recent THE OTHER GUYS) who probably has no equal when it comes to using personal debasement as a source for our rowdy and infectious merriment.  Yet, Ferrell perhaps gets no respect for being a dramatic actor of respectable and ever-increasing range (see the criminally underrated MELINDA AND MELINDA and STRANGER THAN FICTION) and his work now in EVERYTHING MUST GO rounds off a very decent triumvirate of “straight” roles for him.  It’s kind of noteworthy how so many former on-screen funnymen have churned out late careers of serious and emotionally weighty parts: Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon, Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, Bill Murray, and Greg Kinnear all immediately come to mind.  Ferrell is on the verge of joining their esteemed company. 

The film opens in a small Arizona town where Nick, a recovering alcoholic, is about to have the proverbial worst day of his life.  He has a highly lucrative and extraordinarily well paying sales job and is a leader in his profession, but despite his tenure and skill, he's unceremoniously fired by his much younger boss.  To make matters even worse, Nick returns home – after beginning to reacquaint himself with booze – to find that his house has had new locks put on the doors and that all of his possessions are on the front lawn.  His wife has left him and, as a final kick to the groin while he's down, his wife has blocked his access to all of their joint accounts and credit cards.  Even Nick’s cell phone service quickly gets disconnected.  The man is essentially left with nothing except except the clothes on his back and what’s sitting outside in front of his house. 



Now at absolute rock bottom, Nick gorges on a six pack of brew and sheepishly slums back in one of his recliners that sits in his suburban front yard, which soon becomes a visual reminder of his failures at home and on the job front.  Unfortunately, a constantly inebriated man sitting with all of his possessions in his front yard catches the attention of most of his neighbors, which is why his friend, AA sponsor and cop Frank (Michael Pena), shows up to try to help Nick and get him from making a spectacle of himself.  Nick tells Frank that he told the previous officers that had confronted him that he’s free to do what he likes on his own front lawn, which does not seem to impress Frank very much, but he does offer him an idea to have a yard sale.  Realizing that he’s really got nothing much better to do – and that he's getting really low on cash – Nick opts for it, and even enlists in the aid of a local kid named Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) to get the sale up and running.  All of this catches the eye of one of Nick’s new neighbors, Samantha (Rebecca Hall, exuding a lovely and natural grace, as always) who begins to feel sorry for him, perhaps because she is pregnant, alone, and sees in him a downtrodden person to help make herself feel better about her own situation. 

EVERYTHING MUST GO does a uniformly expedient job of juggling two key character dynamics and relationships: First, there is the bond developed between the hapless and drunken Nick with the young Kenny and the second involves a more complex and fragile one between Nick and Samantha.  The key similarity between Nick and Samantha is that they are both lonely and seem to discover each other during their time of solitude.  Whereas Nick is alone mostly because of past indiscretions and self-destructive behavior, Samantha is a much more kindly and relatable figure in the film.  She is waiting for her workaholic husband to join her in her new home across from Nick, which leaves her internally conflicted about her station in life and her marriage in general.  Rather prudently, the film never once puts Nick and Samantha on a trajectory of unlikely romance, which would have been the temptation of a much weaker screenplay.  Instead, they simply become two lost people that share in grief. 

The film – based on the Raymond Carver short story WHY DON’T YOU DANCE? – is also kind of discretely moving and involving on a thematic level, not to mention that it knows how to play up laughs by not drawing too much attention to them while playing out the more subtle and quieter dramatic scenes for just the right nuanced effect.   EVERYTHING MUST GO speaks the universal truth of how people, whether they choose to accept it or not, bring about their own worst personal downfalls.  The film is an acute study in sadness, pathetically destructive self-loathing, and bitter despair and desolation.  Yet, the film is also about taking stock – in both emotional and literal ways – and how we take so many things – material and social – for granted.  The yard sale for Nick almost becomes a form of self-therapy for him: he takes inventory of things that were once trivial and mundane that lay on his front lawn, and his acquiescing to the notion of giving up his heirlooms is just one initial step in many for him getting back to a healthy and content life. 

The film would not work if it were not for Ferrell, and what’s so refreshing here is how his usually histrionic and manic energy is reigned in to create a much more subdued and exemplarily underplayed character.  Ferrell fits the role of Nick so uniformly and atypically well: he neither oversells the role’s melancholic misery nor does he beg for audience sympathy either.  Yes, he does get laughs, but more for how he just understates certain lines with an almost soul-sucking detachment (“I don’t have kids…but I have fish”).  He also wisely does not play Nick as a happy-go-lucky or funny drunk, but more or less as a miserable and selfish one that is trapped within a vortex of his own pessimism and despondency.  

I’ve seen so many Ferrell-helmed comedies where he has cranked up the hysterical performance volume to eleven – often with my approval – to generate big and sustained laughs, but what ultimately makes EVERYTHING MUST GO really tick is how well he dials everything down to the point where he does not occupy a false moment in the film.  Ferrell is equal parts soulful, heartfelt, and disparagingly funny here to create his most authentic and well-rounded character to date.  EVERYTHING MUST GO may easily turn off his core demographic and die-hard fans, but for the rest of us, this is yet another step in the right direction for him gaining broader respectability.  

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