When it comes to comedy, Will Ferrell has fallen into a slump of repetitive characters that have the comic tics of shouting, stating the obvious, and shouting the obvious. If it weren’t for Ferrell’s sublime comic timing and talent for knowing just how long to go deadpan before breaking out, his movies would seem like sequels where only the character’s name and setting had been changed. Back in 2006, it was a welcome change of pace to see Ferrell in the dramedy Stranger Than Fiction. He played a man that could not only hear his life being narrated, but also learned that he was about die. Ferrell gave a strong performance that required both his comic skills and his dramatic ability. His new film Everything Must Go once again demands that he set his familiar comedic persona aside in favor of drama, but the movie falls apart because it never demands anything from its lead actor beyond looking sad and tired.
Nick Halsey (Ferrell) is an alcoholic who has been fired from his job after a scandal where he’s been accused of sleeping with a co-worker and he can’t even remember if he did or not. His wife leaves him, throws his stuff out on to the front yard, and locks him out of the home. The company repo’s his car and he’s informed by his sponsor Frank (Michael Peña) that he only has a few days to live out on his yard under the guise of having a yard sale. Reluctantly, Nick stages a yard sale and in the process begins a little trip of self-discovery with the help of his new neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall) and local kid Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace).
The story demands that Nick’s emotional journey be captivating enough to draw us in, but writer-director Dan Rush’s adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance”, lacks the immediacy or the introspection to make the narrative come alive. Nick is a sad alcoholic. He’s not angry and he’s occasionally witty, but he’s mostly just sad and quiet and that’s as close as Ferrell and Rush let us get to the character. While I understand the need to separate this character from the comic histrionics Ferrell provides in his other films, Rush either doesn’t trust Ferrell or Ferrell doesn’t trust himself to really deliver an emotional powerhouse. This is a man who is a relapsed alcoholic. His wife has left him over an accusation that may be false, he’s been fired from his long-time job over that accusation, his phone has been shut off, his bank account has been frozen, and he’s forced to recognize how alone he is. And all of that makes me pity the character, but it doesn’t draw me into his world and experience his despair. It requires thoughtful direction and a stronger performance to do that and Everything Must Go provides neither.
It’s telling that the stories at the periphery of Nick’s look more interesting when all we see of the main character is a drunk wasting away his days drinking PBR and sitting on his front lawn. Kenny is overweight and gets bullied at school but he discovers he has a knack for sales. How does that translate to the rest of his life? Samantha is on her own unpacking the new house, she’s pregnant, and her husband is still in New York. Hall does a great job finding the emotional arc of her character and I wanted the film leave Nick behind and go follow Samantha.
Everything Must Go is a character-driven drama, but Rush and Ferrell never find the soul of their story. It’s a frustrating film because Ferrell so rarely does these types of movies and he’s shown in the past that his wonderful everyman quality can be used for playing characters with raw emotions as well as outlandish buffoonery. Everything Must Go feels like a missed opportunity for an actor who can give us more, but keeps his character so restrained that he’s almost catatonic.