‘Everything Must Go,’ but you should stay homeMovie Review Thursday, May 19th, 2011
The world is supposed to care about Everything Must Go because it stars Will Ferrell in a dramatic role. He’s trying to be taken seriously as a serious actor, to follow the route of great comedians who became great actors, guys like Tom Hanks and Robin Williams. Jim Carey tried to do it, and while he gave two stunningly great dramatic performances, in The Truman Show and Man in the Moon, he’s nevertheless been relegated to his trademark Jerry-Lewis-on-crack shtick.
Ferrell refuses to succumb to Carey-itis, even after the box office failures of his dramatic turns in Stranger Than Fiction and Winter Passing. He continues to try to convince audiences that he can do more than make them laugh playing arrogant buffoons like Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby and George W. Bush.
I’m not convinced.
In Everything Must Go, he’s still a buffoon, but this time he’s a sad, defeated and drunk one. If restraint is a stretch for him, then he’s limbered up.
In the first scene of the movie, he’s fired from his high-powered, high-paying job for being a messy alcoholic. In another Will Ferrell movie, this scene would end in a pratfall or an explosion of fart jokes. In this one, Ferrell’s character, Nick Halsey, just takes the beating with a sigh.
When he fights back by knifing his boss’s tire, he gets his knife, with his name emblazoned on it, stuck in the rubber and runs from the scene. You might laugh, if only because you expect to laugh when Ferrell does something like this. But you’ll quickly realize it’s not a joke; Nick is really that much of a disaster.
When he gets home, he discovers that his wife has left him, changed the locks on the house and dumped all of his belongings on the lawn. She also froze their bank account and turned off his phone. So, Nick decides to drink a few hundred Pabst Blue Ribbons and live on his lawn.
Then he decides to sell everything, thus the film’s title.
The problem with all of this is that Ferrell playing a drunken loser doesn’t seem all that different from Ferrell playing a sober one. In both states, his face is doughy and inexpressive; the only difference is that the drunken version walks with less skill and speaks lines that are more impolite and impolitic.
Nick is so ruined and wronged by his never-seen wife; it’s hard not to empathize with him. But Ferrell does much less work to earn our empathy than do Rebecca Hall, as his new neighbor and Laura Dern, as a high school classmate, both of whom express a mixture of confusion, pity and horror when encountering him. If the beautiful, brilliantly subtle Hall (best known for Vicky Christina Barcelona and The Town) wasn’t there to react to Nick’s plight, I doubt the audience would know what to do! To laugh or to pity him.
I wanted to pity Nick, but the writer and director Dan Rush decided to hinge all of Nick’s problems on his alcoholism, and on a simplistic 12-step, self-help version of it at that. The movie ends up being about the perils of being drunk, and that story has been told with vastly better skill by dozens of other filmmakers. And by better writers.
The movie is officially based on the Raymond Carver short story Why Don’t You Dance? which resembles Everything Must Go only in that there’s a bunch of furniture in a drunken man’s yard in both stories. Carver’s story is a six-page long, minimalist snapshot of a strange, unexplained sight. It is haunting, moving and funny, everything Everything Must Go is not.
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