A comic force of nature is becalmed in this well intentioned but drab new independent
by Jared Peterson
In the mold of many an independent film before and after it, Everything Must Go is a story of quiet desperation—for the characters, yes, but also for the audience, who may find themselves waiting in vain for comedy and drama that never fully materialize.
Will Farrell (grand master of the comic blowhard) plays Nick Halsey, a mild mannered salesman with a history of alcohol abuse who is handed his walking papers after tumbling off the wagon on a business trip—and a messy, unspecified lapse in judgment that followed. He comes home to find all of his possessions on the front lawn. His wife, who we never see, has the locks changed, the car repossessed and the bank account frozen. Thus, in remarkably few steps, Nick’s entire life is closed for business.
The clock strikes Miller Time (actually, I think it was PBR—lots of it), and Nick camps out on the recliner in his yard, drinking like a fish and surveying the damage. He wearily absorbs the stares and sneers of his neighbors—who see only their dwindling property values—and has a couple of apathetic exchanges with his AA sponsor, Frank (Michael Peña). A police detective, Frank is able to buy Nick a few days squatting rights by telling the authorities he’s is having a yard sale. He has three days to sell what remains of his life and start from zero.
In his despair, Nick finds some awkward connections with others. He meets a sullen teenaged boy named Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and hires him to watch over his stuff, eventually imparting to the young man a thing or two about sales and confidence. He also strikes up a friendship with a new neighbor, Samantha (Rebecca Hall), who is a few months pregnant and has moved from New York, where her husband continues to be consumed with his own work. Nick recognizes aspects of his own life in each of them; it helps him to peek his head high enough above his own wreckage to catch a glimpse of a possible road ahead.
In “Why Don’t You Dance?”, the very short story by Raymond Carver upon which the movie is based, almost nothing is known about the man on his lawn—he’s little more than a glass of scotch and a weary smile haunting the rooms of a house turned inside out. Dan Rush, the film’s newcomer writer-director, seeks to expand the story both forward and backward, to provide reasons for it all while maintaining that feeling of emptiness. This is a tough task, and I think it’s where things have gone awry. We get hints of Nick’s past—his alcoholic radio-DJ dad, his early talent as baseball player—and the detritus on his lawn is evidence of an adult life of failed attempts at self-improvement. But it all has such a generic, fill-in-the-blank quality. The pieces of a sad story are all there, but they never quite break beyond the level of familiar checkmarks on a preprinted list of suburban tragedy.
The task of drawing us in, then, falls to Will Farrell. In his work on small and big screens, Farrell is a comedy warrior; he wields silliness like a medieval flail, and when he’s in attack mode no one in range is safe. Even in repose, he seems poised to strike, to let loose a ridiculous non sequitur or to bellow some declaration of comic self-importance. Of course, his comedic virtuosity does not disqualify him from giving a serious performance. But whatever subtleties there are to the character of Nick (and the story provides little evidence of them anyway) don’t quite register in Farrell’s eyes or across his wincing face. He has the sad clown look—all the best comedians do—but he looks almost afraid to move, and there’s a difference between still waters and just plain still. In the one or two moments that a bit of Farrell’s familiar wit and irreverence peek out, it’s such a tremendous surprise and relief that it jolts you right out of the movie.
Though it’s an unfair comparison, when watching Everything Must Go I couldn’t help thinking of another quiet independent featuring an SNL alum in a dramatic turn. In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray’s character has equally bland and vague issues; he also connects with a young wife distanced from her husband and adrift in uncertainty. But there is something starker and sadder in the roads not taken in that film, and something both darker and lighter about Murray’s performance. But, then, it’s wickedly unfair to pin the problems of Everything Must Go on Farrell. He’s a talented jester forced to be a mere messenger, bearing a plain manila envelope with a form letter we’ve already read.
Everything Must Go is rated R for language and sexual content. A peek through a window reveals a married couple engaging in some rather unorthodox coupling. There is persistent profanity, plus a couple of filthy jokes. Nick drinks like only a seasoned alcoholic can; at one point, he drives while intoxicated and gets away with it.