Review: ‘Everything Must Go’

A man's home is his lawn. Roadside Attractions
A man's home is his lawn. Roadside Attractions

1. There's an inner rage to Will Ferrell that, to me, hits on the secret of just why he's so funny. His best characters -- including my personal favorite, the beaten-down dad of this famous "I drive a Dodge Stratus!" skit -- have spent most of their lives internalizing their humiliations, their disappointments, and finally hit a point that their repression can no longer stand, exploding in impotent violence. There's a movie out there, I bet, that channels this fury, this untethered "what about ME???!!!" into a fierce, "dramatic" performance from Ferrell. Like all comedians, Ferrell secretly wishes to be taken "seriously," and that's what he's going for with "Everything Must Go." He's up for the task, but, strangely, the movie doesn't know what to do with him. It's all windup and no pitch.

2. "Everything Must Go" gives Ferrell a character who is beaten down and left for dead by the world, and by himself, and then lets him just sit there. We want to see him go off. When we meet Ferrell's Nick Halsey, he has just been fired from his job and left by his wife, who has made a demonstrative point of the latter by dumping all his possessions on the front lawn of their Arizona home. Halsey is a recovering alcoholic -- it is implied that's the reason for all this life upheaval -- and at the end of his rope. So, he begins drinking again and decides to just go ahead and live in his easy chair on his front lawn, an act of quiet defiance. Very quiet defiance.

3. While there, he meets a neighbor boy (played nicely by Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of the late Biggie Smalls) with an absent mother and a pregnant neighbor (Rebecca Hall, underused) whose husband keeps putting off flying into town to move into their new home. But mostly, he sits. We learn about his (unseen) ex-wife, about his drinking problem, about his stalled athletic career, about an incident on a business trip in which he might have done something horrible. Ferrell plays all this with a film of muted pain and deadpan defeatism which is admirable and expressive and, all told, not particularly compelling. Nick is a little too hangdog to inspire much care or compassion for his plight. After a while, you kind of wonder what his plight even is.

4. Much of this has to do with Nick's alcoholism, which is so supposedy so extreme that his sponsor follows him around, not to mention that horrible thing he might or might not have done on that business trip. For us to buy Nick's alcoholism as a serious problem, the film needs to treat it with a little more gravity than just "Will Ferrell drinking some PBRs in his easy chair." We're told that Nick has lost his entire life because his drinking was so out of control, but "out of control" is one thing that Nick, and "Everything Must Go," never is. If you were to believe this film's treatment of alcoholism, the worst thing excessive drinking causes is sloth and lack of ambition, which, while hardly positives, tend not to destroy lives in the way we're meant to believe Nick's has been destroyed. "Everything Must Go" treats alcoholism the way romantic comedies treat a meet-cute: as a plot tool to fill in the gaps and add shading where there is little.

5. Nick is surrounded by a bunch of characters who show up for little reason more than to pad the running time, particularly a welcome but unnecessary visit from Laura Dern as a high school classmate and a displaced, awkward subplot with Stephen Root as a dastardly neighbor. Ferrell's scenes with Wallace have an unforced chemistry and are charming enough to keep the film moving, even if it's not going in any particular direction. Ferrell tones down all his mania and does his best to create a character out of sketchings and a gimmicky premise. He is to be congratulated on the effort; Ferrell is the best part of the film, more daring to try something new than the movie itself ever is. "Everything Must Go" has a similar problem to its protagonist: It just sort of sits there.

Grade: C