It's fitting that Everything Must Go is about an impromptu yard sale: last spring, while picking through Hollywood's gaudy, sloppily displayed wares, I passed right by a real gem of a movie that might have made the entire trip worthwhile. If you've never heard of this film, you're not alone. Writer/director Dan Rush's debut (based on a Raymond Carver short story) came and went with so little fanfare that I'd forgotten it existed until Netflix updated my Instant Queue the other day.
Having now seen the movie, I'm hardly surprised that it didn't set the world on fire. As depressed businessman Nick Halsey, Will Ferrell tosses aside his trademark crutches of uncomfortable male nudity, clueless pratfalling, and "hilarious" infantile rage to walk like an honest-to-God man. There are hints of classic Ferrell-isms, but each is underscored by the fact that the main character's wobbly disposition and surliness stem from a lifetime of mediocrity and alcohol abuse.
Nick is rightfully bummed out: on the same day he's downsized for one too drunken sales trips, his wife locks him out of the house; he comes home to find everything he owns strewn about the lawn. His fed-up spouse also changed the locks and security codes, leaving him only the comforts of his leather recliner and the last case of beer he can afford (she froze the joint bank account, too).
His detective friend and AA sponsor, Frank (Michael Pena), drops by, following police reports of a crazy person living in their front yard. He gives Nick five days to relocate, citing a law that allows citizens to hold extended yard sales. The next day, Nick hires a local latchkey kid named Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace) to help him make signs and keep an eye on his stuff. He also befriends new neighbor and pregnant mother, Samantha (Rebecca Hall), whose working-stiff husband keeps getting delayed in making the big move from New York to Arizona.
The movie is front-loaded with shtick, as Nick rebels against the smug, young executive who fired him and fends off strangers who actually want to buy his junk. But the days pass quickly, and Nick gradually realizes that no one is going to save him from homelessness and loneliness. Even a failed attempt to reconnect with a high-school acquaintance (Laura Dern) feels like the last stages of denial before entering spiritual rehab. Ineed, we get a lot of anger, bargaining, depression, and, ultimately, acceptance.
But the beauty of Everything Must Go is the fact that Rush and company live up to the promise of its title, and nothing more. You won't see Nick pull his life together in a heroic, darkest-hour turn-around. By film's end, everything is left up in the air; we leave this chapter of a greater journey behind, hopeful that the characters have found just what they need to make a go of things. But hope is not a guarantee, and there's no telling if the next great catastrophe will send Nick tumbling forever into the abyss.
Will Ferrell has never been better. A lot was made of George Clooney's powerful turn in The Descendants last year; while I was quite impressed, Ferrell's the guy who deserves the 2011 "I Didn't Know He Had It In Him" award. He creates a rich character that is at times lovable, at times loathsome, and always compelling. Even though it feels like I've seen the moment where Nick projects sad home movies onto his garage door a million times, Ferrell sells the scene in a way that makes it fresh and devastating.
It helps that the supporting cast is terrific. Hall is great as a sympathetic-ear-turned-sparring-partner, and Wallace adds a new dimension to the awkward, smart-ass neighbor kid. Dern also brims with believability as the girl Nick probably should have ended up with; her story about being an aspiring actress who once worked with Brad Pitt in a Japanese liquor spot is one of the most naturalistic performances I've seen in awhile.
The film's only weak spot is the end result of Nick's evolving relationship with Frank. There's a nice twist that more savvy viewers will likely scold me for not having predicted. But after the big revelation, the movie takes a brief, unwelcome detour into deranged-cop territory. Frankly, it plays like Rush's attempt to keep traditional moviegoers awake in the home stretch.
At its core, Everything Must Go is a modern riff on Sam Mendes' American Beauty. But instead of cluttering the narrative with soapbox sermons about suburbia, latent homosexuality, teen promiscuity, and God knows what else, Rush sticks with a few key ideas and explores them well. Nick Halsey is a lost drunk who spent most of his life defined by his job and the things he bought with his salary. In the absence of that, he's forced to look at a disorganized soul laid bare and shrug off the baggage that's kept him from moving forward. Though it's a bit rough around the edges, this is a sweet, eye-opening little movie that would look great in your home.