As a first-time filmmaker’s adaptation of a serious-themed source, with a comic star as its lead, the odds were stacked against Everything Must Go.
Yet writer-director Dan Rush’s cinematic debut is a rare successful feature-length short story adaptation. Rather than fortifying Raymond Carver’s Why Don’t You Dance? with false dramatic notes or thin conceptual embellishments, Rush builds on its compelling premise. With a likable Will Ferrell as its lead and a suburban street setting imbued with great allegorical significance, the film offers an incisive personal spin on these tumultuous economic times.
After losing his job and falling off the wagon, a depressed Nick Halsey (Ferrell) returns to his upper middle class Arizona home to find his wife has left him. Not only has she absconded from their marriage, she’s changed the locks and dumped his belongings, all of them, on the front lawn.
So begins a most-improbable journey of self-discovery, unfolding on and around this mundane yard on an everyday street in an ordinary town. Sure, any film about a character sitting on his lawn has obvious limitations. The prospect of enduring such a production could seem almost overwhelmingly tortuous.
But Everything Must Go evades that torpor. Rush adds shape and scope to the narrative by advancing Nick’s reawakening with each anecdotal development. The relationships he forms with new neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall) and young teen Kenny (Christopher John Wallace) take center stage. In a deliberate, sensitive fashion, performed with engagingly subdued delicacy by Rush’s trio of stars, these new bonds drag the protagonist from his overwhelming malaise.
Ferrell isn’t the most obvious casting choice for such a downbeat, sad sack part. Yet his inherent amiability, the sympathy in his repressed everyman persona, makes it impossible to not care deeply about Nick’s plight. We identify with the big lug; his failings and weaknesses are our own. The actor smartly subverts expectations by playing things closed-in as his character’s dignity is stripped away. There are no grand soliloquies or moments of sudden understanding for Ferrell to fall back on, just a subtle shift in perspective carried out with quiet grace.
While Ferrell’s sheer, empathetic charisma is a big reason Everything Must Go resonates, the movie ultimately lives or dies on the piquancy of its allegorical core. And the phenomenon of a man forcibly parting with a lifetime of belongings is ideal dramatic fodder for an economic period in which the extravagances of the past have come crashing down upon the harsh realities of the present. Nick sits back, takes stock of things and starts to learn that happiness can’t be found in that plush recliner, or that high-end TV, or those shiny golf clubs. It’s an obvious message, sure, but one we need, now more than ever.
The Upside: Will Ferrell is terrific and the film tells a story that’s both compelling and timely.
The Downside: Sometimes things get a little slow.
On the Side: Filmmaker Dan Rush is a commercials director.