Everything Must Go
As any film fan can tell you, one of the very best feelings you can have is the rush of discovery when you stumble across something new, interesting, and unexpected. It’s fun to anticipate things too, and Hollywood knows how to whet our appetites like almost nothing else in the world, but too often that wonderful sense of surprise is a casualty of trailers and marketing and focus groups. And when you find it, you want to spread the word, to let people know that you saw something cool that you hadn’t already been planning to see eight months in advance.
In my case, I literally had not heard of EVERYTHING MUST GO until last week. And honestly, that’s weird to me; I don’t think a Will Ferrell movie should fly under the radar like this, even if it’s not entirely like his usual fare. Of course, in a topsy-turvy world where they think ANCHORMAN 2 might not have an audience, I suppose nothing is certain anymore.
EVERYTHING MUST GO isn’t one of those extra-serious movies comedians do to prove they can win Oscars, but it’s closer to that than Ferrell has ever come before. He plays Nick Halsey, a middle-aged sales manager with a drinking problem. It’s not the usual kind of drinking problem we see in the movies, with screen doors slamming and yelling and violence; Nick is a well-meaning and quiet man who is simply much more interested in being drunk than in any other aspect of his life, from behaving on the job to maintaining his marriage. When he gets laid off, his first stop is the convenience store on the way home, where he loads up on a couple of twelve-packs; it’s only afterward that he comes home to find his possessions on the front lawn, the house locked and barred against him, and his credit cards shut off.
We never see his wife; messages are relayed to and from her by Nick’s friend and former AA sponsor, police detective Frank Garcia (Michael Peña), who urges Nick to move on as soon as he can. Moving is the last thing Nick is interested in, though; he sets up shop in his comfy-looking recliner with the twelve-packs and gets busy watching the neighborhood, particularly Samantha (Rebecca Hall), the attractive and sensitive young wife who’s just moved in across the street sans husband. The police try to arrest Nick for vagrancy on his own lawn, but Frank buys Nick a few days of time by getting him a yard sale permit. This sounds like more moving and working to Nick, who’s having none of that, so he enlists the help of a bored-looking boy named Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) to handle the actual yard sale while Nick drinks in peace and comfort.
Of course, try as he might, Nick can’t stay entirely uninvolved in his own life; Kenny, whose placid exterior hides an ambitious soul (and, we suspect, a need for a father figure), coaxes him for sales tips and turns the yard sale into big business, while Samantha, whose pregnant belly and empty house hint at a marriage with its own problems, grows close to Nick almost despite her own better judgment. But while Nick is a nice guy, he’s still a nice guy with a drinking problem, and it is never entirely certain if he’ll be able to choose his new friends over his Old Milwaukee.
If this sounds serious, well, I guess alcoholism and divorce are serious, but it’s a truly bad situation that doesn’t have any humor in it, and the movie finds that vein of humor and works it. Nick’s drunken detachment affords him the courage to say and do funny and honest things he wouldn’t have if he were sober – when an officer stops him to ask how much he’s had to drink, Nick’s disarmingly cheerful reply is “not nearly enough” – and there are some laughs from his new vantage point in life: he discovers intimate secrets about an obnoxious neighbor, constructs a makeshift shower with a garden hose, and screens old 16mm home movies on the outside of his garage door. Ferrell, who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for (or opportunities for) his subtlety, plays these moments perfectly, making Nick nice but not too nice, sympathetic but always the source of his own woes.
EVERYTHING MUST GO is the freshman effort of new director Dan Rush, who wrote the screenplay based on a short story by the acclaimed 1980s author Raymond Carver. Carver’s polished, diamond-smooth short stories were often notable for their ironic, almost clinical detachment, and Rush captures that feeling faithfully here. The movie has drama, comedy, sweetness and heartbreak, but all these emotions are a bit muted, kept a bit at arm’s length, both by the direction and by the subdued musical score; the sad parts are sad but not too sad, the funny parts make us chuckle rather than guffaw. It’s an interesting stylistic choice that gives us a detachment from the proceedings like what Nick himself feels as he sucks back his lagers, but as the movie eventually takes pains to remind us, that detachment comes at its own cost. In the movie’s case, the cost is a slightly chilly tone that some audiences will appreciate and others will be bored by.
Ultimately, though, it ends up being worth it. I talked about surprise earlier, and EVERYTHING MUST GO surprised me by how well it tied up all these different elements – comedy and tragedy, drama and farce – and made them work together, and then built them up to a satisfying climax. It comes together, it works, and I left the theater wanting to tell everybody about this fantastic movie that they might not have heard of…so here I am. Maybe everything must go, but with luck, this movie won’t be going anywhere just yet.