Film review: Everything Must Go

Bringing comedy into the tale of a man whose suburban life falls apart doesn't work for Duncan Wu

October 6, 2011

Everything Must Go

Directed by Dan Rush

Starring Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Christopher Jordan Wallace and Laura Dern

Released in the UK on 14 October

The sight of Will Ferrell seated grumpily in a hideous leather armchair placed strategically on his front lawn, surveying his worldly possessions as he knocks back yet another can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, must rank among the memorable cinematic images of the year. Based loosely on Why Don't You Dance?, a story by Raymond Carver, Everything Must Go concerns a man whose life has gone into accelerated meltdown. Nick Halsey (played by Ferrell) goes to work one morning to be told he is fired and is given a Swiss Army knife as a leaving present, with which he promptly deflates his boss' tyres in the company car park. Returning home, he discovers his wife has moved out of the house, had the locks changed, cancelled the credit cards and scattered his things on the front lawn. Unable to enter his house, he has no choice but to sleep in the armchair alongside the junk at the kerbside, where he decides to remain during the days that follow.

"You know, having all that stuff on your lawn is going to destroy your root system," says his neighbour (played by Stephen Root). It is one of the funniest lines in the film, delivered by one of the best character actors in the US. It is faultlessly underplayed, and sets the tone for much of what follows. The king of deadpan comedy, Ferrell delivers a credible performance that exposes the emptiness of Halsey's life without descending into sentimentality. "You have kids?" he is asked by one of his neighbours. "No," he replies. "No, we don't. We have fish."

The film's director, Dan Rush, has adapted this film from a story barely four pages long, rejecting its central narrative event. As a result, Carver's influence is pervasive but thinly spread; he is responsible for the basic situation and its suburban setting. Rush adds a range of dysfunctional characters, principally Halsey's neighbours, who include Kenny, a boy who helps Halsey to sell his belongings (played by Christopher Jordan Wallace); Samantha, a pregnant woman living on her own across the road (Rebecca Hall); and Halsey's high-school sweetheart, Delilah (Laura Dern). He also invents the plot line and its resolution.

Carver's biggest gift to the film is its central character, who offers the key to his situation in an observation. "I'm no different from any of you," Halsey says. "I just don't hide in my house." In a world of automatic fish-feeders and lawn-sprinklers, Halsey is driven by circumstance to emerge from the privacy we crave and live in the open, where his personal habits, not least his alcoholism, are on constant view. "How much have you had to drink?" a policeman asks him. "In my opinion, not enough!" Halsey replies.

Alcoholism is an addiction to which the film never really faces up, and one of the principal elements bequeathed to the film by Carver, who had good reason to know how self-deluding drunks can be. The film would have us suppose Halsey's drink problem to be serious, showing how it affects his sleep patterns. But towards the end he just abstains, as if that were all he needed to do.

Unfortunately, that's symptomatic of the film's attitude to everything. We are enjoined to believe that Halsey's life is a disaster zone, yet the film is so anxious to affirm its comic perspective that it opts for plot resolutions that present Nick as a "good person" - the usual code for letting us know that everything will be all right. Such moral cowardice is contemptible in an independently produced drama, which is not obliged (nor, indeed, expected) to fill the multiplexes of Middle America.

It's an agreeable enough movie, I suppose, and the experience of watching it is not unlike being licked to death by a Bernese mountain dog. Ferrell delivers a credible performance as Halsey, Hall is excellent as Samantha, and Dern makes a welcome appearance as Delilah. But comedies with soft centres evaporate all too quickly from the memory, even when well acted. Its cankered heart is what makes Carver's original story both memorable and satisfying.

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