By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
As director Dan Rush’s “Everything Must Go” convivially unreels its bittersweet tale of an alcoholic’s tenuous flirtation with redemption, Will Ferrell’s lead character reminds of the very first dramatic nuance my Mom thought to impart. An eye-opening lesson in paradox, it’s the Pagliacci thing…the clown laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.
Not unlike the spate of “serious” portrayals Bill Murray has laid down of late, Mr. Ferrell now joins that list of otherwise comedic actors who’ve proved they have at least one weighty opus in them. Happily, Mr. Rush’s adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “Why Don’t You Dance?” also lets Ferrell mine the humor within the tragedy.
The title declares the grand metaphor that poses as a plot. Learning that his wife has left him on the same day that his employer also opts to no longer put up with his drinking, Ferrell’s Nick Halsey finds himself locked out and on the lawn with all his possessions. But that’s against the little Arizona town’s ordinance…unless, aha, he’s selling the stuff.
Thus ensue the accidental yard sale and the character studies for which it will provide a stage. But it might as well be an outdoor beer garden for Nick who, mulishly ensconced in his relax-a-lounger, quaffs down the Pabst Blue Ribbon like there’s no tomorrow. He has no intention of changing his ways. To him, the scene is a monument to his condition.
This can’t help but attract attention. First along is Kenny (Christopher J. Wallace), a chubby adolescent whose scouting of the perimeter from his bike annoys the squatter. Yet it’s not long before they cut a deal. Nick needs someone to watch things when he goes to buy beer, and Kenny wants to learn to play baseball. Of course both need much more.
Also curious as to the goings on is Samantha, the pretty, freckled and pregnant neighbor who just moved in across the street. Appealingly portrayed by Rebecca Hall, she is the tangential stranger to which a troubled persona can unfold his tale. And naturally, it is impossible to provide that expository service without revealing her own vulnerability.
Expect no intricate story line per sé. But rather, anticipate an evolving analysis of the protagonist, with educative stops at the psychological mileposts. The story also places matters in an engaging sociology. Learning about Nick’s sales career, it’s shades of the uniquely American syndrome Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman so trenchantly identified.
Serious about its ruminations, but with a dry sense of wit, it’s the sort of thing that might have been written by Ingmar Bergman had he grown up in California…sans the dedicated grimness, without relegating our destiny to fate. Regardless of whether Nick can escape his Hell, remember, Daniel Webster beat the Devil himself. Salvation is in our DNA.
In any case, pontificating at his suburban outpost, making this last stand from whence he envisions no good outcome, Nick slowly divulges what’s in his heart, and perhaps the sterner stuff he’s made of…when he’s sober. He tutors Kenny, not only in baseball, but in sales strategies that are essentially life lessons. Kenny asks his mentor if they are friends.
His assets frozen and company car repossessed, Nick becomes adept at steering Kenny’s bicycle to and from the convenience store, where he uses a portion of the day’s take to maintain his generally obliterated state. One day, a calculated segue inspired by the high school yearbook unearthed among his belongings has him visiting an old sweetheart.
He’s hoping to find something back in easier times. Here the filmmaker captures some truisms about long lost relationships and the hazy curiosities of attempted reconnection. Laura Dern’s Delilah evokes it just right. What she remembers, he can’t recall at all, and vice versa. Yet, through their subtle catching up, a gut feeling about Nick is confirmed.
But for the greater cache of harbored secrets and inconvenient truths, look to the instant confidante status Nick bestows upon Samantha, sticky as it might get. Telling scenes also emanate from encounters with police detective Frank Garcia (Michael Peña), Nick’s AA sponsor. Respecting that we are grownups, the film leaves us some gray areas to mull.
The alternately sad and funny contemplations may not vie with anything Voltaire has already discerned. Still, there’s plenty of good mental merchandise on display among the dashed dreams, befuddlements and hopes in Nick’s yard. Moviegoers rummaging for that entertaining change of pace are sure to find a good bargain in “Everything Must Go.”
“Everything Must Go,” rated R, is a Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate release directed by Dan Rush and stars Will Ferrell, Rebecca Hall and Christopher Jordan Wallace. Running time: 96 minutes
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