Dan Rush has used a short, five page Raymond Carver story entitled Why Don’t You Dance? as the inspiration for his low-key debut feature film Everything Must Go. This fleshed-out adaptation runs just past the 90 minute mark but stumbles to the finish line, and may well have been more suited to a different, shorter format, but it contains a decent ‘straight’ performance from Will Ferrell at its heart which is worth watching whether you are a fan of the actor’s normal brand of madcap comedy or not.
Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a recovering alcoholic and salesman in Arizona who is laid off by his younger, weasel-like boss Gary (Glenn Howerton) at the beginning of the film following an unspecified (alcohol-related) incident. He is given a personalized Swiss Army knife as a leaving present, and uses it to puncture Gary’s tyres, but leaves the knife behind in a panic. Upon arriving home, Nick discovers that his day has got even worse, as his wife has left him. She has also changed the locks of the house, frozen their joint bank account and deposited all of his personal possessions on the front lawn, so Nick drowns his sorrows and falls asleep on a chair outside, only to be rudely awoken the next day by the automatic sprinkler system.
With his wife unwilling to cooperate, Nick resolves to live in his front lawn for the foreseeable future and, with the help of a young boy named Kenny (Christopher ‘CJ’ Wallace, son of the late Notorious B.I.G), begins to sell off his possessions one-by-one (much to the annoyance of his apparently uptight neighbour Elliott (Stephen Root)). Rather drolly Halsey’s job is actually to sell salesmanship, a skill he ends up teaching to Kenny while lounging around in his pool after the pair develop an irritatingly Hollywood man / boy friendship.
Hooking his George Foreman grill and fridge up to the power supply, Nick is able to cook for himself and uses the outside tap for cold showers. Meanwhile he continues to drink, but is visited by his AA sponsor Frank (Michael Peña) and heavily pregnant new neighbour Samantha (a kind-spirited Rebecca Hall), who lends him a degree of moral support after identifying certain similar characteristics Nick shares with her own wayward husband.
Though Ferrell has played it straight before – notably in Woody Allen’s Melinda And Melinda and Marc Foster’s Stranger Than Fiction – it is still strange to see him ditch the zany madcap comedy in favour of a more subtle character study. A great many comic actors have made their name in comedy before trying their hand at serious acting before Ferrell, of course, but roles taken on by the likes of Jim Carrey and Mike Myers in the past have at least had a certain degree of ebullience about them. This is as straight-laced and as straight-faced as Ferrell will ever get.
Though it feels unusual, and you expect Ferrell to begin shouting wildly at any second, he sticks to the task at hand admirably, credibly negotiating his part as a corporate man who has fallen on hard times and is struggling to adjust to his new situation. Nick’s resigned and quiet disbelief at recent events comes from a believable state of shock, and Ferrell’s low-key, restrained performance is well-judged. There are one or two laughs here and there (and I stress just one or two), and Ferrell slips into gear effortlessly when drunkenly defying a police officer on his lawn or catching his neighbours in the middle of their sado-masochistic sex games, but this is very firmly a drama, as opposed to Ferrell’s usual light-hearted environs.
While Nick’s situation is a fascinating one to follow initially, it becomes difficult to retain the same level of interest in the character for an hour and a half as he sits and drinks outside his house, partaking in various conversations with members of the community. These dialogues begin to drag in the second half of the film as they aren’t particularly gripping, and the people Nick engages with aren’t particularly interesting. The film begins to rely heavily in the final act on Nick’s relationship with Samantha, but Rebecca Hall’s character feels lightly-drawn, pleasant though she is. Rush aims for some Linklater-esque conversational navel-gazing in order to fill in the details Nick’s back story, but it doesn’t quite come off, and the film ends up far too soporific and plodding as a result of these frequent lawn-based chats.
The pace is glacial throughout, with Nick gradually stumbling along with the occasional drunken rant or fit of anger for punctuation until he arrives at the fairly predictable conclusion. Along his ever-so-slightly-redemptive journey he looks up high school crush Delilah (Laura Dern), who takes pity on him as the pair catch up outside Delilah’s house, rather than wondering (or directly questioning) why the hell a man she once knew has suddenly turned up on her doorstep unannounced 30 years after they last clapped eyes on each other. Samantha also showers Nick with an unusual amount of kindness, which all feels a little too neat and convenient for my liking.
Rush – who wrote the screenplay as well as directed – attempts a twist of sorts but it comes at a point when my interest in the story was waning, and though it’s a nicely-judged reveal, there’s no real dramatic punch to the gut. The nagging sense of frustration I felt while watching the film wasn’t really helped by the principal location appearing so often, either. The scenes of Nick dozing in his chair or wandering aimlessly around his lawn begin to grate after thirty or forty minutes.
It’s a shame that Everything Must Go falls a little flat. Rush has not made a bad film – it’s a passable low-budget, character-driven indie – but it becomes a bit of a drag to watch at times. Ferrell’s performance is good, though, and he receives decent support from the rest of the cast. Carver’s original protagonist was a symbol for middle-aged decay, but this theme has been lost in Rush’s adaptation, which is more concerned with the rebirth of a man after life deals him a bad hand. As such it feels too lightweight, a dark tale that has been neatly repackaged for the big screen, and wrapped in unwarranted optimism.
Directed by: Dan Rush
Written by: Dan Rush, Raymond Carver
Starring: Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Christopher ‘CJ’ Wallace, Michael Peña
Running Time: 96 minutes