After the failure of Will Ferrell’s last quote-unquote “serious” film, Stranger Than Fiction, which is not so much serious as it is just more serious than most of Ferrell’s other films, the actor was said to have dropped out of drama for good. What use is it, if all it gets him is a smattering of applause from critics and a dinky paycheck? It seems that those negative memories have worn off some, as here we have Ferrell playing an alcoholic who loses everything he has in life, some of it by accident, some of it by conscious choice, in a film adapted from a short story by Raymond Carver (the mind behind Altman’s epic Short Cuts). Alas, despite the attempt at gravitas, the movie limps along. There’s nothing exciting about the writing or directing of Dan Rush, and the star just doesn’t have the chops of other comediennes-turned-thespians like your Robin Wiliamses, Bill Murrays, or even Jim Carreys.
It’s difficult to put into words where the film falters. We meet Nick Halsey (Ferrell) on the day when his life falls apart. He loses his job due to indiscretions on a business trip where the champagne got the better of him, then his wife leaves him and throws all of his belongings out on the lawn. She also changes the locks and alarms on the house, freezes the bank account, and turns off Nick’s cell phone service, in a move that seems way more malicious than necessary. On a dime, Nick can turn into the kind of drunk who lobs a baseball through a window; for the most part, however, he’s more of the sort who flops down on a chair on the front lawn while searching out one last unopened can of beer. Or at least, that’s how he begins his journey.
I suppose he takes a journey. It seems like he’s supposed to, doesn’t it? He befriends a boy who lives on the street, paying him to help sell the junk piled up on the lawn. I use the term “befriends” loosely here, as even the characters feel the need to ask whether there is really any friendship between them. The movie does not sell the relationship at all, aside from some vague sales advice that Nick gives his young compatriot, and the fact that the boy Kenny cooks breakfast for the destitute man. The sales aspect of the film, by the way, doesn’t make a lot of sense. The film literally opens with Nick giving a speech about the rules of salesmanship, chief among which is to give the customer more than they asked for. How this relates to the bulk of the film, other than the obvious connection that Nick SELLS things he owns, is unclear. As the stuff on the lawn begins to disappear, our protagonist… learns… something… about himself? I think he does, because he begins to approach things from a different angle. What is it that drives him to this, though?
The film lackadaisically flits between ineffectual secondary characters for Nick to interact with, but they have nothing interesting to say. The centerpiece of the movie comes when our hero visits a high school fling (Laura Dern) in order to see what sparks might ignite. They sit on her porch in relative silence, the few standard questions – “Do you have kids?” – being their only real communication. As Nick leaves, this woman asserts that he has a good heart. End scene. I would like to imagine that the passionless dialogue between the two, coupled with the woman’s bland declaration of Nick’s derring-do were part of the point. If the moment was intentionally mundane, I’m not sure how to reconcile that with the peace of mind that Nick later somehow feels.
And yes, Ferrell himself utterly fails to bring depth to the character. He slouches and sighs, sure, but leaves most of the heavy lifting up to a three-day stubble and an ever-present pout. That’s not enough. What did I expect him to do differently? It’s difficult to point to specific areas in which the performance could have been enhanced in order to bring something more to the character. Maybe the responsibility, then, falls back on the shoulders of director Dan Rush. It should have been clear, going through the dailies, that something was not working. When Nick stumbles across his neighbor’s lawn at night and witnesses their animalistic sexual predilections, there’s nothing to it. His reaction is muted, and any tension that might have been had in the daytime dealings between neighbors is entirely absent. The most “emotional” moment comes when Nick sits poolside with his pregnant neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall), he recounting for her the events which led up to the loss of most everything in his life. That’s just it, though: Ferrell is simply recounting the events. This is a chance for both the actor and the film itself to shine, to lay bare the aching despair that the character now feels, the crippling disease which has had hold of him for so long, the loneliness and regret. But none of this comes across. Everything is laid out flat, like cards on a table, pick a card, any card, but there’s no magic when there’s no sleight of hand.
And that’s the closest I can get to describing exactly what went wrong with Everything Must Go. There is an occasional burst of color which quickly fades back into beige. The items on the lawn disappear one by one, which I’d imagine should be a metaphor for Nick releasing those things which held him back in his life previously, but there’s no real parallel drawn. Our protagonist has a chance encounter with the boss who fired him at a restaurant; the man accidentally leaves without his drink, and Nick… calmly returns it to him. Perhaps, giving the movie the benefit of the doubt again, the idea is to defy the viewer’s expectations by not taking the easy road of simple metaphors and explosive arguments between husband and wife. If that were the case (and I stress that this is a monumental if…), I would have some slight praise for the movie but nevertheless have to conclude that whatever it’s really trying to do is not done well, because it’s hard to tell what exactly that is.
Everything Must Go does not fall flat, it just is flat.