I like it when Will Ferrell plays off type. It’s especially welcome since his shtick has grown increasingly tiresome. In Dan Rush’s Everything Must Go, Ferrell delivers a performance with none of his trademark, over-the-top hamminess. To be sure, there are funny moments in Everything Must Go, but they’re subdued… and a little bittersweet.
Ferrell has played serious parts before, notably in the under-seen Winter Passing, but never with such success as his remarkable accomplishment here. And yet, despite the strength of his performance, I worry that people who identify themselves as Will Ferrell fans won’t enjoy Everything Must Go as much as, say, Step Brothers. He doesn’t holler once in the entire movie, doesn’t resort to cheap gags or his usual hijinks and tomfoolery. In one scene, the six foot three Ferrell rides a child’s bicycle through the neighborhood with grocery bags dangling from the handlebars, a gag that, in most of his other films, would have been an occasion for slapstick. But this film plays it straight: the sight of this large man on a bike is comic, but the reason he’s borrowed that bike is actually sad.
Ferrell’s Nick Halsey is a formerly successful regional vice president in a large sales company, who also happens to be an alcoholic in the middle of a serious relapse. As a result of his drunken indiscretions, Nick is terminated, and for his 16 years of dedicated service, he’s pushed out the door with pat on the back and a Swiss Army Knife, which he proceeds to stick into the tire of a car driven by the smarmy little weasel who fired him.
All Nick wants is to go home, where he can drink until he forgets about the worst day of his life. No such luck. When he arrives at his nice, clean, suburban home, he finds everything he owns strewn across the front lawn, the locks changed, and a note from his wife saying she is kicking him out. Not only that, but there is a hold on his bank account and credit cards. She’s even had his cell phone turned off.
In desperation, Nick befriends a local urchin Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace). He also introduces himself to Samantha (Rebecca Hall), the pregnant photography instructor who just moved in across the street. To appease the police, Nick calls his situation a “yard sale,” though he refuses to sell anything. Due to a local ordinance that allows residents to hold a yard sale for no more than five consecutive days, he’s got an external deadline for deciding on his next move. With nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, Nick camps out in his easy chair, a cooler of Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys at his side, and waits for an idea to come to him.
Everything Must Go is loosely based on Raymond Carver’s very short story, “Why Don’t You Dance?” Between Rush’s script and Ferrell’s understated performance, the film captures the story’s incisive focus on despair, while also expanding the story’s bare bones plot with details of personality and environment. Penniless, without a friend in the world, Nick rifles through yesterday’s empties, desperate for a single drink: the scene, however brief, is heartbreaking.
At first Nick seems amicable, a buffoon who’s drunk but largely harmless. But you soon see how he’s come to this state, and even imagine why his wife left him. It appears that one reason Nick was fired was an incident with a young female coworker. Like the carver story, the movie doesn’t reveal exactly what he was accused of, but when Samantha asks him if he did whatever it was, Nick shakes his head, unable to remember.
Did he offend her somehow? Did he hit or even rape her? You don’t know, but imagining his crimes and misdeeds is much worse than hearing them overtly described. And as you wonder, perhaps you’re bothered by the menace of unseen, undefined violence, as well as Nick’s visible melancholy and anguish. And it makes you as uncomfortable as it makes Samantha. You practically hear Nick crying for help, but in a much more effective way than if he were actively weeping.